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Legends of the Dragonrealm Vol III THE CRYSTAL DRAGON I
HE WOKE TO find his world invaded. A shadowy plague in human form swarmed over the glittering, rocky landscape, tainting it by merely existing. He concentrated, allowing the crystalline chamber to show him more. A myriad collection of images related to his request filled the walls. He saw the three great ships, black as pitch, anchored off the shore and wondered how they could have come so far without him noting them. It was a troubling sign, an indication that he had slept deeper than he had desired.
Rather than contemplate it further, he studied the other reflections. One facet revealed a detailed image of some of the invaders and this he brought to the forefront. He hissed. They were familiar to him although the name by which they went did not come to him at first. In contrast to the sun-drenched region they now occupied, the figures wore armor the color of night, armor unadorned save for the helm. Atop each, a crest fashioned into the snarling visage of a wolf’s head leered down, a reflection in many ways of the men themselves. In the distance he could see the banners fluttering in the wind. The profile of the same wolf, surrounded by a field of deep crimson, watched over the army, for that was what it was.
The name came to him at last. As a people, they referred to themselves as the Aramites. Yet to those they had preyed upon for generation after generation, there was another, more apt title.
The wolf raiders.
Now they were here, in his domain. He released the image he had chosen and sought among the others. At first glance they seemed all the same, reflection upon reflection of dark-armored men infesting his kingdom. He hissed again, growing ever more frustrated. None of this aided him.
The desire to return to his slumber, to ignore the situation, grew stronger. He knew, though, that falling prey to such a tempting choice was to invite the downfall of all that was his. Despite the danger to his mind . . . to his very being . . . he had to stay awake. The wolf raiders were familiar enough to him that he knew they could not be left unattended.
“Aaaah . . .” There they were. The officers. The overall commander the Aramites termed Pack Leader was not there, but the rest of the jackals, his subordinates, were.
With the exception of the black and crimson cloaks they wore, there was little to mark them as anything other than common soldiers. In addition to the cloak, the Pack Leader would have a more elaborate helm and a single badge with the mark of the wolf upon it, but that was all. The Aramites cared little for insignias of rank otherwise. An officer was an officer, whatever his level, and that was all that mattered. Officers were meant to be obeyed in all things. Blind obedience was part of the wolf raider creed.
His first glance at them revealed nothing of significance and he was almost tempted to seek another reflection when the scene as a whole suddenly registered. The wolf raiders had a prisoner. He could not see who or what it was at first, for the ebony-garbed soldiers surrounded the hapless soul, as if fascinated by what they had captured. They poked at the unfortunate with short swords and talked among themselves.
There was one among them who did not laugh, but rather stood to the side, his round, young face a mask of boredom. He might have seemed entirely indifferent to the world around him if not for the hunger visible in his eyes. They darted back and forth, drinking in everything yet never resting on any object for more than a few moments. Interested despite himself, the watcher sought a reflection giving him a closer view of this one raider.
He was smaller of stature and unassuming at first glance, but there was that about him that made one wary. When the eyes of the young Aramite suddenly turned in his direction, the intensity with which they stared was so unsettling that the watcher almost thought he had been discovered. Then, the wolf raider returned his own attention to the captive, breaking the spell.
Chagrined, the master of the crystalline chamber followed the Aramite’s gaze and, for the first time, beheld the wolf raiders’ captive.
It was a Quel. Even bound and on his knees, he was nearly as tall as the humans. Gray netting enshrouded him from the top of his armored head to the ground, but enough was visible. The watcher marveled that any rope could hold the creature, especially a male as huge as this one. The Quel’s long, tapering snout had also been bound, either to put an end to his hooting or to prevent him from snapping off the fingers of any raider foolish enough to reach too close. The raiders had also been clever enough to pull their prisoner’s thick arms back so that the Quel could not make proper use of his lengthy claws. Designed to dig through the harsh soil of this land, the claws of the underground dweller would easily pass through the armor and flesh of an Aramite soldier without pause. Likely, the wolf raiders had already learned that fact the hard way, for it was doubtful that the capture had been an easy task. Even he respected the incredible strength behind those rending hooks.
Why a Quel? He pondered that. Had the Quel attacked the camp? Had they somehow simply caught this one unaware as he had surfaced? The latter seemed unlikely, considering how well the subterranean creatures knew this region, for they had been here longer than even he. It was possible that the raiders merely thought their prisoner a beast of some sort and not of a race older than their own. Humans could be presumptuous when it came to their place in the scheme of things.
He had no care himself for the fate of the Quel. The race stayed clear of his domain, despite the fact that it had meant abandoning what had once been a part of their mighty, subterranean city. To a Quel, nothing short of death would make one of them invade his realm. They feared not only him, but the power he controlled.
The power he controlled . . . For a moment the watcher forgot his own task and laughed silently at himself. If he controlled the power, then it controlled him just as much. Likely more. He could never be free of it, for to be free would be to lose himself forever.
His mind began to drift and the chamber, responding to his every thought, conscious or otherwise, allowed the multitude of images to fade, almost immediately to be replaced by one and one alone copied over and over in the facets of the crystalline walls. It was a single, rough-hewed face partly obscured by a helm and a beard, a face in many ways too akin to the visages of the wolf raiders. A warrior, a soldier obsessively obedient in character no matter what the cause.
It was too much. Roaring, he rose from his resting place and waved a huge, taloned hand at the array of faces. The images vanished as swiftly as they had materialized. In their place returned the encampment of the invaders. Slowly, the fear and anger dwindled, albeit not completely. Once more, the Quel and his captors took the stage. They were almost welcome now, for anything was better than lingering too much on a past so long dead it no longer seemed anything more than another dream.
When he gazed at the walls this time, however, he saw that all was not yet well. Something, in fact, was terribly wrong. The reflections wavered, twisted, making it seem as if the world beyond the chamber had become fluid. At first, he thought it was his own raging mind, but that was not the case. He had lived with the chamber for so long that he knew its ways, knew both its limitations and idiosyncrasies as well as he knew himself. Possibly better.
Whatever the cause, it came from without and he could not doubt that somehow its roots led back to those who had dared to think they could make his dominion into theirs.
Reaching out with his thoughts, he used the power of the chamber to seek out the source. The pictures wavered further and many of them altered as he narrowed his focus. The cause was near where the Quel was being held, but try as he might, it was impossible to focus exactly on the location he wanted. That, too, was peculiar; nothing ever long escaped the chamber’s intrusive ability.
Briefly, the milky vision of a tent surfaced in several of the facets of the glittering walls. Peering closer, the watcher struggled to strengthen the images. He was rewarded with new visions, just as murky as the first, of an armored man seated in the tent. There was a glimpse of a beast of some sort wrapped around his shoulders and another picture that indicated a second figure standing behind the first. Of the second all that could be said was that he was as tall as the young raider guarding the Quel had been short and his skin appeared to be, of all things, a vivid blue.
More! I must know more! Few times had the chamber, his sanctum, failed him so. That it did now only made the need to discover the truth even more essential to him. If the wolf raiders were the cause of this, then they were truly a threat to the fragile balance he had maintained for so long.
His talons scraped at the floor, gouging the already ravaged surface. His breathing grew rapid. It was a strain to have to concentrate so, especially without sufficient rest. Now more than ever, there was danger that he might lose himself, become as the others before him had become . . .
Almost he had the image, a thing held in one hand of the seated Aramite, likely the Pack Leader he had sought earlier. In his eagerness to see it, however, he allowed his control to slip ever so slightly. The vision wavered again . . . then became a meaningless blur.
“Curssssse you, you malevolent mirror!” he roared, forgetting himself and the danger such rages represented to him.
Flame licked the multiple images of the wolf raider camp as his frustration became action. His tail lashed out and struck the opposing wall, where more than a dozen identical Quel gazed up into the dark eyes of more than a dozen identical young officers, each of whom had removed a foot-long rod from his belt. A second burst of flame momentarily scorched the reflections of a score of soldiers searching among the crystal-encrusted rock, their purpose in doing so a mystery that, for the time, held no interest to the maddened watcher.
As his eyes reddened in fury and he prepared to lash out again, the wolf raiders once more faded away. For a single breath, the chamber of crystal turned opaque. Then, the dull gray walls gave way to a new reflection. The flame within him died an abrupt death. He stared, paralyzed, at the legion of maddened, reptilian visages. They, in turn, stared back, a gleaming array of monstrous heads all bearing the same expression of disbelief and horror that he did. The toothy maws were open wide and from each a forked tongue flickered in and out. Eyes narrow and inhuman burned into his head. Gemlike skin rippled with each harsh, halting breath. Leathery wings unfurled and furled.
He recoiled from the condemning images, but there was no escaping the fact that each and every reflection was of him.
Yessss . . . I am the masssster of the Legar Peninssssula, am I not? I am the monster men call the Crysssstal Dragon . . . He faced the reflections again, this time in defiance. But I am also myself and I shall always be!
Despite his defiant stance, however, he knew he had come much too close to succumbing, closer than he had in centuries. The past few years were much to blame. Nearly two decades before, he had been forced to spend himself rescuing the Dragonrealm from his fatalistic counterpart to the north, the unlamented Ice Dragon. Reversing the spell of chilling death that the mad drake had unleashed had taken too much. The rage had almost overtaken him then. He had not come as close as now to being lost, but he had come close.
The wolf raiders would not leave of their own will. Like the parasites they were, they would remain until they had either been eradicated or had wrung from the land all that they could. If they did not know of the Quel’s legacy yet, the Crystal Dragon had no doubt that they would before long . . . and that legacy would also lead them to him. The monarch of the Legar Peninsula understood all too well that even his presence would not deter men such as these. Their tenacity was almost reminiscent of another time, another people.
And so, in the end, I must fight . . . even should it mean a victory in which all I desire to save is lost! He tried to erase the repellent notion from his mind, but it had already embedded itself firmly within. There would be no escaping it. It would haunt him awake and asleep. Finally surrendering to that inevitable fact, the Dragon King settled down. Sleep, which he needed, was no longer really even an option for him. He could rest, but he could not afford the luxury of deep, enshrouding oblivion. The blight upon his realm had to be removed before it spread beyond his ability to control.
The Crystal Dragon shuddered at the thought of what he would be forced to do if that happened. There would be only one choice left to him then . . . and it might leave behind a legacy compared to which the devastation attempted by the Ice Dragon would seem a blessing.
Still, to him it would be worth the cost.
THE MANOR HAD no other name, none that had stuck, anyway. Many called it the Green Manor, but that was more a description than a true title. To Cabe Bedlam, it was simply called the Manor. How long ago it had been built and by whom was a matter of conjecture. The style was like nothing the dark-haired warlock had ever seen before or since. Though much of the building had been cut from stone, the right side was actually formed by a massive tree as old as time. Depending where one stood in front of it, the Manor was either two or three stories tall. Marble columns jutted upward on each side of the doorway. Near the roof, the metallic effigy of one of the Seekers seemed ready to swoop down on any intruder.
Some assumed it had been built by the avian race, in part because much of the statuary and artwork seemed to revolve around the lives of the bird folk. That a tree formed part of the Manor strengthened that theory. Yet, it always seemed strange that creatures who normally lived in the heavens and made their rookeries in high mountain caves would build so earthbound a home. It seemed more likely to Cabe that the statues and such had actually been added later on, long after the departure of the original builders.
Actually, the history of the Manor meant far less to him than the fact that he was now its master. Here in the midst of the Dagora Forest, he and his wife, the enchantress Gwendolyn, ruled as lord and lady. Here, they raised the children . . . both human and drake.
From his position on the second-floor balcony of their private quarters, Cabe could survey much of the vast garden of the Manor. He watched as servants of both races went about their duties or spent their free time enjoying the day. The first time I saw this place, I was running for my life.
The Dragon Kings had discovered him, the unknown and unassuming grandson of Nathan Bedlam, a sorcerer who had nearly brought down the ruling drakes. The silver streak in his hair, the mark of sorcery, would have been enough to condemn him already, for the drakes despised human mages, but the discovery of his ancestry had sealed his fate. Some of the Dragon Kings had panicked and sought to kill him immediately, but instead one of their own had perished, in the process stirring the long-dormant magical powers of Cabe to life. He had fled here and found Gwen, the Lady of the Amber, frozen for more than a hundred years by the novice warlock’s own father, Azran. Together, Cabe and the enchantress had survived Dragon Kings, armies, and mad sorcerers. After Azran’s death and the scattering of Duke Toma’s army, they had come back to the Manor and made it their own . . . if it was possible for anyone to actually lay claim to the ancient structure.
A giggle made him look down. Cabe stiffened as he saw his daughter, Valea, come charging into sight, a greenish yellow drake as large as a full-grown man behind her. Just coming into womanhood, she was the image of her mother down to the fiery red tresses. Clad in a riding outfit of emerald green, much more practical than the dresses Gwen tried to make her wear, she should have been able to outrun the beast.
She did nothing of the sort. Instead, Valea whirled about and reached for the running drake with open arms. Cabe raised a hand to defend her, then held back as the beast suddenly began to shimmer. Reptilian legs straightened and softened. Leathery wings shriveled to nothing, as did the tail. As the shifting creature stood on what had once been its hind legs, the draconian visage pulled inward, becoming more and more human with each passing breath. Hair of the same greenish yellow sprouted from the top of the head.
Where once had stood a monster, there now stood a beautiful maiden only a few years older than Valea. She was clad in an outfit identical to that of her companion save that it was of a pale rose, not emerald green.
Valea came up and hugged her tight. From where he stood, Cabe could hear both of them.
“That’s the fastest you shifted yet, Ursa! I wish I could do that!”
“You think I’m doing better?” the older girl asked hopefully. Her narrow eyes contrasted sharply with Valea’s almond-shaped ones. Like all female drakes when in their human forms, she was breathtaking and exotic. Her shape already vied with human women twice her age and her face was that of a siren, fulllipped and inviting. Only her childlike manner prevented her from already being a seductress. “Kyl keeps saying I’m so slow I should be with the minors!” She sniffed. “I don’t, do I?”
Cabe grimaced. Minor drakes were beasts, pure and simple, and what he had mistaken the drake girl for a moment before. They were little more than giant lizards with wings and were generally used by their brethren as riding animals. In what was possibly the most peculiar aspect of the drake race, both minor drakes and the intelligent ones could be born in the same hatching. Even the drakes could not say why. To call Ursa a minor drake was the worst of all insults among her kind. He would have to speak to Kyl, something that was never easy.
The two girls were laughing now, Valea having evidently said something that Cabe had missed. The duo ran off. Cabe marveled at how easy it was for his daughter to accept a playmate who shifted from human to monster form, especially as the latter was the girl’s birth form. He still felt uneasy around most of the drakes and was not reconciled by the fact that they, in turn, had a very healthy respect for his sorcerous abilities.
Darkhorse would laugh if he knew . . . He wondered where the elemental was. Still chasing the ghost of the warlock Shade? He hoped not. Shade was dead; the shadowy steed had seen it himself. Yet, Darkhorse had searched the Dragonrealm time and time again, never trusting what his own eyes had shown him. There was, admittedly, some justification. It had been Shade’s curse to be reborn after each death, ever shifting from darkness to light to darkness again depending on which side his previous incarnation had followed. The last death had sounded final . . .
Cabe dropped the thought before he, too, began to see ghosts. There were other matters of importance. The news that King Melicard of Talak had passed on to them was disturbing, more so because one did not know what to believe and what not to believe. Oddly enough, it was not the more substantial rumors of a possible confederation made up of the survivors of decimated drake clans or the rise of a new generation of human warlocks that remained lodged in his mind, but rather the least likely one.
Someone had claimed to have sighted three great black ships on the northwestern seas of the Dragonrealm. Ships that had been sailing south.
It seemed unlikely, though, since the source of the rumor was said to be hill dwarfs, well known for creating tall tales. The Aramites hardly had the time and resources to start a new venture of the magnitude that the rumors indicated. Three such vessels meant hundreds of sorely needed soldiers taken from the defense of the wolf raiders’ crumbling empire.
Yet . . . no news of the great revolt overseas had reached the Dragonrealm in about a year. At last word, one of the mightiest seaports left to the raiders had been ripe for falling. The forces of the Gryphon had been only days away.
He hoped the tide had not turned somehow.
“What are you thinking too much about now?”
The warlock turned to his wife, who had just entered the room. Gwendolyn Bedlam was a tall woman with fiery red hair that cascaded downward, falling nearly to her waist. A single wide stripe of silver ran back across her hair, marking her, as it did Queen Erini of Talak and Cabe, as a magic user. She had emerald eyes that sparkled when she was pleased and full lips that were presently curled into a smile. The forest green robe she wore was more free-flowing than his dark blue one, yet somehow it clung to her form, perfectly outlining her voluptuous body. He met her halfway across the room and took her in his arms. Their kiss was as long and as lingering as the first time they had ever kissed. Cabe, with his slightly crooked nose and roundish face, had often wondered how someone of such ordinary features and mild build as himself had ever been so fortunate as to win her hand.
When he was at last able to separate himself from her, Cabe replied, “I was thinking of many things, but mostly about what we learned in Talak.”
“The black ships?”
He nodded. “Maybe I’m just worried about the Gryphon. He did so much for me when I was confused and afraid all those years ago. He gave us refuge. Now, not a word in so much time . . . and then this sudden rumor.”
“The trip across takes a long time, Cabe.” Gwen took his arm and started to lead him out of the room. “Perhaps the last ship was delayed.”
He nodded, but the nagging feeling would not disappear. “Maybe, but I can’t help feeling that something has happened.”
“Troia and Demion would not let anything happen to him. Demion sounds very protective of his father.” Although they had never met the Gryphon’s mate or his son, they knew them almost as well as if they had visited them every day.
“I suppose . . .”
His father was a bear of a man, taller than he was and with so commanding a presence that he always felt compelled to kneel before him. Both of them were clad in the same green dragonscale armor, but whereas he merely felt hot and uncomfortable, his father truly was the warrior incarnate, a true standard by which the rest of the clan measured itself.
The bearded figure looked down at him. “I expect complete loyalty from all of my sons! You won’t fail me like your brothers, will you?”
And it seemed that more than one voice answered, for it seemed there were others beside him, all kneeling before the man they called father. . . .
“Father?” He blinked. “Gwen?”
She turned him so that they faced each other. There was deep concern in her eyes, concern bordering on fear for him. She stroked his cheek. “Are you all right? You froze there for a moment and your eyes turned upward. I thought you were about to pass out!”
“I . . .” What had happened? “I had . . . a flash of something.”
The enchantress pushed aside several locks of crimson hair that had fallen over her face in the excitement. Her expression clouded. “You muttered ‘father.’ Was it . . . was it Azran?”
The name still sent chills running through him. “Azran’s dead and I’d never call him father, anyway. He was only responsible for my birth. Hadeen, the halfelf my grandfather got to raise me . . . he was my father if anyone was. Besides, this was someone else’s father . . . though I felt as if he and I were the same for that moment.”
“What did you see?”
He described the scene to her, discovering then how murky everything had been. It was as if the vision were very old. Cabe mentioned as much to Gwen.
“A ghost of the far past . . .” she suggested, glancing around at their surroundings. “The Manor is very, very old. It could be you walked into one of its memories.” In the time since they had made the Manor their home, they had discovered that it was haunted. Not by true ghosts and undead, but rather by living memories of the many who had either lived here or stayed for a time. Most of the visions were quick, foggy things. A glimpse of a tall, severelooking woman in a gown of gold. A creature like a wolf, but more upright, possibly of a race now dead.
A few images were more distinct. Short-lived events like the one that Gwen had seen in the first days. It had been a wedding, but the image had lasted only long enough for her to hear the two participants give their agreement. There were other visions, darker ones, but they were rare and only those very gifted in sorcery even noticed the most ordinary memories. The Bedlams had learned to live with them, for there was nothing in those memories that could hurt anyone.
“This was stronger than usual,” Cabe muttered. “But it did follow the pattern of the others. I’d just never seen this one before.”
“There’s probably a lot we haven’t seen. When I was here the first time, in Nathan’s time, I experienced a few that I have yet to see again.” Her grip on him tightened. “Are you still suffering from it?”
He shook his head. Even the last vestiges of it were no more than memories of a memory in his head. “I’m fine.”
She nodded, but he could see that she was still not satisfied. Cabe knew that she was thinking of another possibility.
“No, it wasn’t a Seeker. I know how their mindspeak feels and this wasn’t like that. This truly felt ancient. I could sense that. What I saw was something that had happened long ago, maybe even before the Dragon Kings, the Seekers, and the Quel had ever been, although I didn’t think humans went back that far in the history of the Dragonrealm.”
His reply seemed to relieve her. She kissed him lightly, then cupped his chin in one hand. “Very well, but if it happens again, I want to know.”
They walked slowly down the hallway, their conversation turning to the more mundane concerns of managing what was turning into a small village. Both Toos the Regent, ruler of Penacles, and the Green Dragon, who controlled the vast forest region surrounding their home, insisted on adding to their already vast number of servants. With some effort, the Bedlams had increased the area covered by the protective spell of the Manor. The humans and drakes in their service already needed to build new homes, for the smaller buildings that made up the Manor estate could no longer hold everyone. Once Cabe had joked about slowly becoming master of a tiny but growing kingdom. Now, he was beginning to think that the joke was becoming fact.
Their conversation came to an abrupt stop as something small dashed across the hall.
“What was that?” Gwen’s brow furrowed in thought. “It almost looked like a . . . like a . . .”
A twin of the first creature raced past in the same direction. This time, the two had a better look.
“Were you going to say ‘a stick man’?” Cabe asked in innocent tones.
Yet a third darted into the hall. This one paused and stared at the two huge figures despite having no eyes to speak of. Like the others, its head was merely an extension of the stick that made up its torso. Its arms and legs were twigs that someone had tied to the larger stick with string.
Its curiosity apparently assuaged, the ludicrous figure scurried off after its brethren.
“We have enough folk living here without adding these now,” the enchantress decided. “It might be a good idea to see where they’re going.”
“Or where they came from,” added Cabe. “Do you want to follow them or should I?”
“I’ll follow them. You find out who’s responsible, although I think we both know.”
He did not reply. She was likely right. When tiny men made of twigs wandered the hallways of the Manor or bronze statues turned into large and lethal flying missiles, there could only be one person responsible.
The stick men had come from the stairway leading to the ground floor. Cabe descended as swiftly as was safe; there was no telling if he might trip over yet another tiny figure. He reached the bottom of the stairway easily enough, but perhaps a bit too much at ease because of that, the warlock almost did not notice the living wall coming from his right.
“Do pardon me, my Lord Bedlam. I must admit my eyes and my mind were elsewhere or I would have certainly made note of you.”
Benjin Traske stood before Cabe, an imposing sight if ever there was one. Traske was more than six feet in height and had the girth to match. His face was full and round and on any other person would have seemed the jovial kind. On the scholar, however, it was more reminiscent of a judge about to pass sentence. He wore a cowled scholar’s cloak, a gray, enveloping thing with gold trim at the collar, and the ebony robes of his profession. Traske also wore a blade, not part of the usual fare for a man of his occupation, but the warlock had learned the day of the tutor’s arrival that he was a survivor of Mito Pica, a city razed to the ground by the armies of the Dragon Emperor in their search for one young Cabe Bedlam. Benjin Traske had seen his wife and child die because he had only had his bare hands with which to protect them. He himself had barely survived a wound to his stomach. The blade had remained with him since then, a symbol of his willingness to defend those under his care at the cost of his own life.
There had been some question as to whether he would be able to live among drakes, much less teach their young, but the Dragon King Green, who had discovered him, had assured the Bedlams that Benjin Traske saw cooperation between the two races as the only possible future.
Even when he was not tutoring, Traske sounded as if he were lecturing. Cabe found he could never listen to the man without feeling like one of his charges. “No apologies, Master Traske! I was hardly paying attention myself.”
The tutor ran a hand through thin gray hair peppered slightly with silver. An expression of exasperation crossed his face. “You have seen your prodigy’s latest effort, then. I feared as much. They have journeyed upstairs, I take it?”
Cabe nodded. “All three of them. The Lady Gwen is hunting them down now.”
“Only three of them? There should be five.”
Such knowledge in no way encouraged Cabe in the efforts of his son. “We saw only three.”
Traske sighed. “Then, if you will excuse me, Lord Bedlam, I will hunt out the other two while your good bride deals with the three above. I feel at some fault, for when he lost control, my mind was elsewhere.”
“You were teaching him magic?” While there was a hint of sorcery about the tutor, he had never struck Cabe as an adept.
His remark seemed to amuse the man. “Teach him magic? Only if young Master Aurim desires to know how to lift a feather for the space of three seconds. No, my lord, my skills will never be much more than wishful thought. If I were an adept, the fall of Mito Pica might have taken a different turn. I was merely his audience. I believe your son was trying to impress the teacher, so to speak. No, the magic of mathematics and history is the only magic I can teach.”
“Well, I think I’d better teach him a little about concentration and patience . . . again. Where is he?”
“In the center of the garden.” Benjin Traske performed a bow, a momentous achievement for one of his build. “If you will excuse me, my lord, I do not want my quarry getting too far afield and if the other two are not upstairs, then that means they must be headed in the direction of the kitchen.”
“Mistress Belima will have a fit if she sees one.” Belima was the peasant woman who ran the kitchens as her own kingdom. Considering the results she achieved, Cabe was more than willing to grant her that territory.
“Indeed.” The hefty scholar departed, moving with a swiftness and grace that the warlock could only marvel at.
It took only minutes for Cabe to reach the location where Traske had said his son would be. Aurim was seated by himself on one of the many stone benches located here and there around the garden. His head was bowed and his face was buried in his hands. The silver streak across the middle of his head contrasted sharply to his shoulder-length, golden hair. He wore a robe similar to his father’s, save that it was of dark red.
“You’ll never find them like that.”
Aurim looked up, his expression changing from one of frustration to embarrassment. Overall, he resembled his father, but fortunately, as far as Cabe was concerned, he had inherited from his mother’s side a more noble chin and a straighter nose. Although only a few years older than Valea, he was generally able to pass for someone several years into adulthood . . . except when failure reared its ugly head.
“I saw them. So did your mother.”
The boy rose. He could already meet Cabe at eye level even if he could not meet Cabe’s eyes themselves. “It was a simple thing! You and Scholar Traske are always telling me my problem is patience or concentration! I made the stick men to practice. There’s ten different routines I can make them do, all to prove I’m being more careful and concentrating better!”
“And so?” He tried to be encouraging. Unlike Aurim, Cabe had come into his powers almost full-flung. The experience and patience that his grandfather, Nathan, had literally passed on to him had given him an advantage no other spellcaster had ever had. Even then, his own inexperience and uncertainty had made for a constant battle of wits with himself playing both sides. He still had much to learn. His son had no such advantage; everything he learned he learned from the beginning. Sorcery, while it looked simple to understand and utilize, was anything but.
“And so I lost control again! Halfway through the second set. They just ran off.” A sullen look crossed the lad’s countenance. “And now you can lecture me again.”
“Aurim . . .”
His son clenched fists. “If that stupid vision hadn’t—”
“What vision?” All thought of Aurim’s recklessness vanished.
“Like the other ones. The memories of the Manor, you and Mother say. Only this one was sharper. Men in scale armor. One big one talking to others. I think . . . I think they were all his sons.”
“And you were one of them. He spoke to you about loyalty. How he demanded it from you.”
The boy looked at him, wide-eyed. “You know it?”
“I had the same vision . . . probably the same time as you, in fact.” Cabe grew uneasy. Nothing like that had ever occurred before. The visions generally only appeared to one person, usually Gwen or him. Only lately had Aurim started to sense them and he, knowing of them from his parents, had had little trouble accepting them. If the things were changing, becoming more intrusive into the world of the present, would it mean that some day they would have to abandon the Manor?
Aurim, who knew his father well, put aside his own troubles for the moment and asked seriously, “Does this mean something?”
“It might.” He no longer had the memories of Nathan Bedlam to guide him, but Gwen knew far more about the whims of sorcery than anyone now alive save the Dragon Kings and possibly the Gryphon. She might be able to shed some light on this sudden turn.
Gwen! She was still hunting down the stick men! “We need to discuss this further, but first we have to take care of a little problem still running loose.”
The tall boy’s cheeks turned crimson. “I’ve been trying to think about what to do. Couldn’t we just summon them with a spell?”
“Have you tried a summoning?”
“Yes.” The defeat in Aurim’s tone increased tenfold.
“I was afraid of that.” In the heat of the moment, the idea had not even occurred to Cabe, but he knew that at some point Gwen would have thought of it. The warlock was doubtful it would have worked, anyway. Aurim’s creations were never easy to deal with. It was a sign of his great potential. “Did you maintain your concentration?”
“I did! This time I swear it!”
“Then they probably won’t listen to anyone . . . and we have to go hunting. You go after Master Traske; he’ll need the help. I’ll find your mother.”
“Yes, Father.” Aurim paused. “I still can’t get the vision out of my mind. Are there others so vivid?”
“Only a few. We’ll have to talk about how to shield yourself from them if they bother you so much.”
“Oh, I don’t mind them; any other time, they’re interesting. Who do you suppose they were?”
Cabe knew that his son was stalling now, mostly because Aurim had little desire to face his tutor after such an abysmal display. Still, for once it was a question that the warlock wished he could answer. “I don’t know. They remind me of something I’ve read, but nothing specific comes to mind now.”
“What’s the Legar Peninsula like?”
There were questions and there were questions and Cabe, who tried to be an understanding father even though he considered nearly two decades not near enough time to learn how to be one, had had enough. “I think Master Traske would truly appreciate your help soon, Aurim. Then, when you’re done, he can give you a lecture on the geography of Legar or anywhere else.”
Frustrated, Aurim grumbled, “I only wondered if it really glitters as much as it did in the vision . . .”
“What was that?” Stepping face-to-face to his son, Cabe repeated his question and added, “You saw Legar in the vision?”
Aurim swallowed, not knowing what he had done wrong now. He nodded slowly and gasped, “In the background. It was there sometimes. I . . . I thought it was. You’ve always talked about how much it sparkles and Master Traske said once it was covered with diamonds.”
“Not diamonds. Not exactly,” Cabe halfheartedly corrected him. “Crystals, yes.” He looked away. “And it does glitter; enough to blind a person during midday if you look in the wrong direction.” And I didn’t see it. Why?
The visions of the Manor had never extended to regions so far away. They had always dealt with the ancient structure itself or the lands it occupied. If Aurim had seen Legar, and Cabe did not doubt him, then this was more than a simple time-lost memory.
He could not say why or how he knew, but somehow, standing there, Cabe Bedlam was certain that the answer to this mysterious vision had to do with three black ships.
THE BEAST WAS dead. It was not often that Orril D’Marr overestimated his prey, but the blasted creature had seemed so impervious to pain that he had pushed too hard. It was a pity. Lord D’Farany would be displeased, which was always a danger, but D’Marr was certain that what little he had gained out of the creature just before the end would more than make up for his error.
The young Aramite officer scratched his chin while he watched the soldiers drag the Quel’s body away. That it had been more than a simple animal had surprised him at first, but he should have known that when the blue man said something was true it was most definitely true. D’Rance was a fountain of knowledge and had, fortunately for the expedition, studied the history of this abysmal land in great detail. It was a shame he had not been born a true Aramite rather than one of the untrustworthy, blue-skinned folk of the northern reaches of the empire. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before one of his kind turned on you. D’Marr hoped he would be the one given the order to kill the northerner. It would be interesting to see how the blue man died.
The sun was going down rapidly. That was fine with D’Marr. The weather here was beastly, fit only for creatures like the overgrown armadillo he had just killed. The sun burned all day, making the black armor seem like a fire-hot kettle. What made it worse was that no one else seemed to notice it.
D’Marr turned and started for a ridge to the west of the camp. It was a long walk, but he knew that was where he would find the Pack Leader and possibly D’Rance, too, although the blue man was supposed to be leading the hunt for the cavern entrance now. One never knew about the northerner, though. What he did often went against what a wolf raider was supposed to do. No doubt only the fact that he achieved results kept Lord D’Farany from putting a rather permanent end to the blue man’s antics.
Yes, it would be interesting to see him die.
He reached the ridge some ten minutes later. The sentries positioned near the bottom saluted him and immediately stepped out of his way. Most soldiers were quick-witted enough to know that one did not stand in Orril D’Marr’s way for very long. As he walked between them, the young officer smiled lazily at the taller of the two. The man’s eyes widened, then looked away. Once past, D’Marr dropped the smile and forgot them completely. They were nothing to him. Only one man among all those who had become part of this desperate venture had earned his respect and obedience . . . not to mention his fear.
As he neared the top, a snarling sound made him look up. A savage creature the size of a small dog but built more along the lines of a giant rat peered down at him. Its ugly face was flat, almost as if at birth someone had pushed it in, and when the jaws opened, there were jagged teeth everywhere. When D’Marr came almost within reach, it snapped at him. The mask of boredom slipped from his visage as the Aramite silently cursed the animal and swatted at it with one mailed hand. Still snarling, his furry adversary trotted back several steps. D’Marr hated verloks and would have gladly done away with this one save that it was his master’s pet. Only Lord D’Farany would ever consider such a vicious creature for a plaything.
No longer with an advantage, the verlok trotted back to its master. D’Marr took a moment to both catch his breath and organize his thoughts. He stared at the backside of the Pack Leader, who stood at the opposite edge of the cliff gazing out at the sea. The evening wind whipped Lord D’Farany’s cloak like some mad dervish, but otherwise the master raider was as still as stone.
The Aramite commander was alone, but as D’Marr strode toward him, he heard D’Farany’s voice.
“Can you feel it? So very near yet so far. The land fairly glows with power . . .”
D’Marr came within arm’s reach of his commander and knelt beside him. The verlok moved away, glaring. “My lord.”
“You killed him, D’Marr.”
He glanced around to see if somehow he had missed someone else, someone who could have informed Lord D’Farany about his mistake. There was no one. The anxious raider looked down at the ground. Time and time again he reminded himself that his master was no longer a keeper, no longer one of the Aramite sorcerers whose souls had been tied to the wolf raiders’ savage and very real god, the Ravager. When their god had abandoned them just prior to the revolt, he had taken his gifts with him. That had meant madness and death to most of the keepers, for the power of the Ravager had used as much as it had been used. It had enslaved them to the will of the wolf god. Without it, the survivors had become as helpless as newborn pups . . . all of them save Ivon D’Farany.
D’Marr realized he had not yet responded. “Yes, my lord.”
“You were overzealous.”
“I was, my lord.”
“Rise, Orril, and join me.” The Aramite commander had still not shifted his gaze from the sea. D’Marr stood up and waited, knowing that his master would speak when he chose to.
More than a minute had passed before Lord D’Farany finally commented, “From here, they still resemble hunters, don’t they Orril?”
It took D’Marr the space of a breath or two to understand what his master meant. Then his eyes fixed upon the three massive ships that had carried the wolf raiders this far. It was true; they still did resemble the hunters they had once been. Tall, black, and, despite their great size, as swift as any other vessel sailing the seas.
And swift enough to carry us away from the revolt while our tails still hung between our legs . . .“They’ve served us well, my lord.”
“And suffered because of us.”
“Yes, sir.” Suffered, indeed. From a distance they might still resemble the terrors of the sea they had once been, but up close the ravages of the empire-wide revolt became all too evident. The sails had been patched so many times that there were now more patches than original sail. Scorch marks and cracked timber on the hull spoke of the accuracy of the enemy’s weapons. On board, it was even worse. Most of the rails were either broken or completely missing. There were still gaping holes in the decks because there was no longer enough material with which to repair them. Aboard one vessel, the crew had barely managed to secure the main mast after one strike had nearly torn it free. It was a wonder the raiders had made it so far with only a few losses at sea.
The three ebony ships were hunters no longer. They were merely shadows now.
“Scuttle them. Tonight.”
The raider commander turned then. D’Marr swallowed. Lord D’Farany had not escaped the madness that had taken his fellow keepers and the vestiges of that madness remained forever a part of his countenance. His skin was pale, almost white, and there were scars, insufficiently hidden by a short, well-groomed beard, where he had tried to claw his own skin off during that period. Three days of screaming had left his lipless mouth forever curled upward at the ends, making it seem as if the former keeper found the world around him ever amusing. Worst of all, though, were the eyes, for they never seemed to focus, yet somehow they snared one’s attention, forced one to look at them. To D’Marr, to whom the world was an enemy ever needing to be watched, being bound to stare into those eyes and those eyes alone was sheer horror.
“Scuttle them. Tonight. They deserve to rest.” The eyes drifted to the direction of the sea but did not quite reach it.
“Y-yes, my lord.” D’Marr found himself shaking as he broke contact. Then his fear faded as he contemplated what the Pack Leader’s command truly implied. They would be trapped here, then. They would be forced to not only survive, but to strengthen themselves as swiftly as possible. They would have to make this realm theirs or perish.
It did not occur to D’Marr to protest, to refuse the order. One did not question the Pack Leader. It was not the Aramite way. “I will do it myself, my lord. There’s something I wish to test and this will give me the chance.”
“You should have been more careful, Orril,” Lord D’Farany said, switching back to the previous subject as was often his habit. He snapped his fingers. The verlok came trotting over to him. Reaching down, the Pack Leader took the monstrosity in his arms. It growled quietly as he began to stroke it, the closest it could come to a purr. “This . . . this . . . Quel . . . was valuable.”
Here was his chance to redeem himself. “Yes, my lord, he was. More so than we could’ve ever realized.”
The hand stroking the backside of the verlok paused. Pale, gray eyes shifted to a spot just to the side of the officer’s head. Not a word was said, but D’Marr still knew that he had just been commanded to speak.
“I know now where the surface entrance to the caverns lies, my lord,” he began. “The entrance to the city of the underdwellers. To their power. All the searching in the world would not have uncovered it, Lord D’Farany. It’s extremely well hidden.”
“But you can find it.”
“Yes, my lord. Easily.”
Nodding his approval, the Pack Leader turned away. D’Marr, however, did not take that as a signal that he had been dismissed. He knew his master too well to assume such a thing.
“Tomorrow, then. You will lead the search.”
“As you desire.” Despite his hatred of the heat and the blinding sunlight he would be forced to suffer, the young raider was pleased. The glory would be his, not the blue man’s.
“There is something else, is there not?”
Something else? D’Marr could not recall anything of significance other than what he had reported. The location of the monster’s home had been his only trump card, the only one he had thought necessary.
“What of the dragon, Orril?”
The dragon! How could he have forgotten? The dragon who ruled here had been the only worrisome question, the only threat to the advancement of their plans.
“The Dragon King will be of little concern to us, my lord. This one hides in his citadel and never comes out. This I learned through the Quel. So long as we do not seek to enter, he and the handful that make up his clan will not bother with us. We may do as we please. All he seems to do is watch. Watch and do nothing.” The last statement was pure conjecture on the Aramite’s part, but it made sense to him. The Crystal Dragon apparently cared not who trespassed in the region that was supposedly his so long as he was left alone. “So we may proceed and the dragon may be left for later when we are more secure in our power.”
Lord D’Farany did not immediately respond. Instead, he turned slowly back to his subordinate and, for the first time since D’Marr had joined him, fixed his eyes on the young officer. The verlok grew oddly still, as if as frightened as D’Marr. “You had best be correct in your assumption, Orril. The dragon cannot be taken lightly. He could not have lived so long surrounded by so much power and not been affected by it.” The Pack Leader began stroking his pet again, but this time the animal was in no way soothed. “Should it come to a confrontation between the dragon and me, rest assured that I will bait a proper trap for the reptile . . . and you will be the bait.” The eyes unfocused again and the Pack Leader began to turn away. “You are dismissed.”
It took all of Orril D’Marr’s willpower not to run as he departed the ridge. Someone in the camp would suffer tonight; someone would have to suffer to assuage his fears. It was the only way he could purge himself, the only way he could face the tasks tomorrow with the mask of indifference in place.
Better the dragon any day, he thought, than the wrath of his master.
CLEAVING ITS WAY through the turbulent waters of the Eastern Sea, the lone vessel neared the Dragonrealm. Where the ships that Cabe Bedlam pondered about had been deadly leviathans, giants designed for terror, this one was low and sleek, a tiny juggernaut built to carry a mere handful of passengers swiftly to their destination. There was, in fact, only one trait it shared with the three massive raider ships.
It was utterly black.
“WE ARE VERY close now. I can hear its call. It was good of the Quel not to lie to us,” Lord D’Farany commented as he watched his men advance across the gleaming land toward the place where the dying Quel had claimed the entrance to his city was hidden. Lord Ivon D’Farany did little to stem the madness in his voice. He knew the others could not sense what he sensed, for none of them had ever been trained as a keeper. They were to be both pitied and envied, he decided. Pitied because they had never known the seductive power of the Aramites’ great god, the Ravager, and envied because they had not had to suffer the soul-wrenching horror of withdrawal when that power had been abruptly torn away just prior to the war. He was considered one of the fortunate ones, but then no one else could ever understand the emptiness that was now ever with him. His hand twitched as old reflex actions still sought the talisman he had once owned, the link to his god.
“But that will change . . .” he whispered. “So much will change, then.” The ends of D’Farany’s thin mouth rose ever so slightly, the closest he generally came to a smile. It was never a good idea to smile, for it upset the men so.
When the power of his god had been torn from his soul, he, like the rest, had fallen into madness. He had screamed and then laughed, a laugh that had chilled his watchers. In his mind, he had died, completely and utterly. When sanity at last returned, a different man occupied the body. The desperate commanders had sought the power of a keeper to aid them in the sudden and overwhelming revolt that had arisen, but they had found something else instead. Something that would not be manipulated but rather would manipulate in turn.
Recalling where he was, Lord D’Farany glanced about him. Despite the sun and heat, his men were still moving at a brisk pace. The common ranks did not know what they truly sought, only that their leaders had ordered them to watch for a cavern and be prepared for battle.
It might be that he was wrong, that this was not the place that he had dreamed of for the past few weeks. He had not, of course, told anyone else of the dreams. He never did. The ship captains had obeyed his command to steer toward this land rather than one of the more lush regions to the north, but it was clear that they considered the gleaming peninsula an interesting but hardly useful bit of dirt. Vegetation was sparse and older reports had warned that the interior was inhospitable, consisting mainly of endless hills of rock and crystal. There was nothing here of value to the average wolf raider; the crystals were fascinating, but they were, for the most part, common.
He knew otherwise. He had first felt the power emanating from the near-barren domain days before they had landed. Now, ashore, he more than felt it; he lived it. Here was a force that could fill the emptiness inside, make him complete at last.
All his men had to do was take it from the beasts below.
“This is a mistake, yes?” came a knowing voice to his left. While phrased as a question, as much of what his companion said was, the comment was actually a statement.
“Give Orril his opportunity, Kanaan. It is both his reward and his punishment.”
“There is another way, my lord. A better way, I think.”
D’Farany knew what his aide meant. He nodded slowly. “When it is needed. Patience, Kanaan.”
The tall figure beside him grew silent, but the Aramite leader knew that Kanaan D’Rance was by no means mollified. Like most of his kind, he was impatient and ambitious, a combination of traits that would have had him executed on the first day by most commanders but suited Ivon D’Farany just right. The Pack Leader had a fondness for things mercurial and the blue man was certainly that. He was also a fount of information. D’Rance had made the Dragonrealm his obsession.
The gaunt northerner had been a rare find. His talents perfectly complemented Orril D’Marr’s own considerable skills, yet the two were of such different minds that their constant competition also served D’Farany. The latter also assured that the two would never combine forces and cause him threat. He would have hated to see that happen. It would have meant the need to eliminate two valuable weapons. He did not dare do that until he was complete again.
Complete . . . the Pack Leader frowned. Even this would not make him truly complete. Nothing save his glorious god’s return could do that. Still, I will be close.
It was then he felt the power around him shift and shape and though he knew what it meant, Ivon D’Farany merely stood there and drank in the sensation.
The world exploded in light . . . and the belated screams of men.
“I warned, did I not? I warned that this would happen, yes!”
D’Farany forced his eyes to focus. He did not see as normal men did, not anymore, but there were times when it became necessary to try. When the raider leader did at last see what the underdwellers had done, he could not help but smile, despite the horrific sight he knew he created. “Magnificent!”
Before him, his soldiers scattered in an attempt to make themselves less of an inviting target. The Pack Leader barely noticed their frantic efforts. His eyes only saw the wonderful result of so much power, power that was to be his.
There had been a small rise where the beasts had struck with their sorcery, a small rise populated by a few scraggly plants and, at the moment of the attack, likely a dozen or so soldiers. Now, the rise was a flat, iron-hot pool of glass and the plants and the men unfortunate enough to be there at the time . . . were nothing.
Yet still the raider force moved on, for they had been given a command and that was all they needed.
“Magnificent . . .” the Aramite commander whispered again. His hand twitched as he once more sought the talisman that would have let him manipulate such power.
The same sensation swept over him. A second flash burned away the world in a sea of light. D’Rance and the others were forced to fall back and shield their eyes, but Lord D’Farany barely noticed. He breathed in the holocaust air and felt a strength he had not felt in years.
With an almost wistful expression on his ravaged countenance, he slowly turned toward the blue man and quietly commanded, “Bring me the box now, Kanaan.”
Still blinking, the bearded northerner reached into the depths of his cloak and pulled out a tiny, rectangular container. The Pack Leader nodded pleasantly, having known all the time that the blue man would have it on him despite orders to the contrary. He forgave D’Rance such things, because it pleased him to do so. There would come a time when he overstepped himself and when that happened D’Farany would either punish him properly or turn him over to D’Marr, who had never made it a secret that he wanted the blue man’s skin.
The Aramite commander liked to think of himself as a fair man. He was also perfectly willing to give the younger officer to the northerner if circumstances warranted it.
He removed his gloves and, with great respect, took the tiny black box from D’Rance. The former keeper ran one finger over the lid, outlining the wolf’s head engraved there. It had taken him much effort and time to gather the forces stored within and he treated them with the care they deserved.
A third burst of light raised anew the shouts and screams, but the sounds were merely insignificant irritations to him as he opened the top and admired his prize.
In the days of the keepers, it would have been called the Ravager’s Tooth. A curved artifact shaped to resemble a hound’s fang, it was small enough to fit in his palm. He had once had one like it, before the day of emptiness. With great eagerness, Lord D’Farany removed the talisman from the box and cupped it in his left hand. The terrible smile stretched tighter as he allowed himself to briefly become ensorcelled by the tooth.
My master, why have you forsaken us? In the talisman was the residue of the Ravager’s unholy will. Long ago, a younger D’Farany had discovered that although their god had vanished and taken his power with him, there were traces in the talismans of the keepers . . . even traces in the keepers themselves. It had meant dark work, locating the artifacts and the bodies and drawing the lingering power from them, but he had prevailed. Yet the power this piece contained was limited; each use drained the talisman. It would soon be as empty as he was.
“But not for long . . .” The Pack Leader cradled the piece in his hand and returned the box to the blue man. He then turned back to where his men fought to survive and held out the talisman toward the gleaming landscape where he supposed the cavern entrance was.
Yet again the earth was shaken by a burst of deadly light. The Quel might no longer be masters of the realm, but they still wielded power. Their strikes were also systematic; each time the raiders shifted away from the previous blow, they were attacked anew from the opposite direction.
A silence seemed to surround the former keeper as he held the talisman up to the sky. The only one still daring to stand near him was D’Rance, who eyed his commander with both anticipation and envy.
D’Farany whispered, “Behold the legacy of my Lord Ravager. Behold his glory.”
The carved tooth glowed bright.
Its effect was not something that was seen, not, at least, by the wolf raiders who were there. At most, a few who were sensitive, such as Orril D’Marr, felt a rippling in the fabric of the world itself. The rippling washed across the area like a tide coming into shore. It passed through rank after rank, moving swiftly toward the front and then beyond.
“Mustn’t destroy,” muttered the Pack Leader to himself. “Mustn’t take the chance. Merely take the fight from them.”
The silence around D’Farany spread as well. Even the screams and shouts seemed to fade away as the power unleashed by the talisman blanketed the land. Those who did not have the touch of sorcery within them still could feel that something was different.
At last, the tooth ceased to glow. Lord D’Farany looked at it with great sadness. The spell had drained it of everything he had collected. Now, it was no more than a useless trinket. Nonetheless, the Pack Leader did not throw it away, but rather returned it to an overawed D’Rance, who gingerly placed it back in the box.
“They may advance again.”
The command proved to be unnecessary. Already, soldiers were reorganizing and moving forward. D’Marr had understood what had happened. The Aramite leader nodded to himself. It was an example of why the young officer was one of his favorites.
Now the raiders moved unimpeded. Even Lord D’Farany did not know what he had unleashed, but he knew that the Quel would be helpless now. Their power had been negated for a time and that time would be enough to ensure total Aramite victory.
“Come, Kanaan. It’s time to join them.”
The blue man bowed. “Yes, my lord.”
As they trailed slowly after the advancing troops, D’Farany contemplated what he would do with that power now that it was his. Building new ships was a possibility, but what sense was there in returning to rescue the fools who still fought back home? How much better to claim a portion of this realm and begin expanding here. How much more satisfying to take from the Gryphon’s friends the same thing the birdman had taken from the Aramites.
D’MARR PEERED INTO the darkness of the cavern entrance. The walls gleamed faintly from the torch he had directed one of his men to throw inside. There was nothing to be seen, but that did not mean that there was no danger. D’Marr was not that naive.
He turned to the man nearest him. “Inside. Double file. Do watch the ground and the walls. . . . and the ceiling, for that matter. They could come from anywhere.”
The raider blinked, then hurried to obey as D’Marr’s free hand slowly shifted toward the rod hanging from his belt. The Aramite officer nodded and watched as two ranks quickly formed. He allowed the first three pairs to enter, then tightened his grip on his sword and entered with the next.
Where are you, my little beasts? Even with the intervention of Lord D’Farany, it could not be this easy. There had to be resistance. There had to be battle.
Farther and deeper they marched and yet still they did not encounter the creatures whose lair this was. A sense of unease spread throughout the lines, even infecting D’Marr. No enemy gave up so easy. Lord D’Farany’s magical counterattack, while potent, should not have been able to eliminate all opposition.
He was almost pleased when the first man finally died.
He had commanded them to be wary of all directions, but no one save those who had been involved with the capture of the first Quel could have understood the speed at which they could burst through the earth and strike at their foes. Suddenly there was a huge, taloned hand erupting from the tunnel floor. It took hold of the ankle of the nearest soldier and withdrew as swiftly as it had come. That the hole that had been created was far too small for the human form did not matter. The helpless raider was pulled as far as the gap in the floor allowed and then pulled farther.
It was not a pleasant sight, but it gave D’Marr new respect for the strength of the overgrown armadillos.
“Leave it,” he warned the two who started to reach for the remains in some vain hope that there was still a chance. “I want spears and torches ready.” He had had some of the men bring light spears, weapons about a foot longer than a short sword and quite useful in tight areas. As light as they were, the spears were very, very sharp and highly resilient. “Right flank watch right wall and ceiling. Left flank watch left wall and floor. The man who misses the next one will not have to fear death at the beasts’ claws. I shall be more than happy to oblige him myself.”
Yet, even as he spoke, another arm burst through the wall across from him, seizing the nearest man by the throat and bringing his head hard against the rock face. The crack and snap echoed throughout the cavern, then was drowned out by the noises of belated action as the raiders closest tried to cut the hand of the creature off. One man managed to slice the back of the huge paw, but the digger quickly retreated into the earth.
How do they move through it so quickly? It might as well be water the way they come and go! There was only a small, collapsed hole to mark where the second attack had originated from.
He did not have time to consider the matter further, for the third attack was directed at him. D’Marr was turning when the talons came shooting from the wall next to him. With a swiftness he did not know he had, the officer ducked back. Even still, his reaction was nearly too slow. Huge claws slashed at his jaw, leaving a bloody trail. His sword was up in almost the same instant. The raider had the great satisfaction of watching the blade cut up through the arm just past the wrist of his attacker. A shower of blood drenched his breastplate.
The Quel’s arm shook, its actions nearly twisting the sword free of D’Marr’s grip. He took hold of it with both hands and held on for dear life. One of the soldiers raised his own weapon and brought it down on the still exposed limb. The armored hide of the Quel was thick, but not thick enough. The edge of the sword embedded itself in the arm, causing a new shower of blood.
The attacker tried to withdraw, but the swords prevented that. A soldier with a spear moved forward and thrust into the hole. D’Marr again wondered at the vast stamina and strength of the armored beast. Even as badly wounded as the Quel had to be, there was no sign of weakness.
The wall before him shattered, pelting men with bits of rock. The Quel, unable to retreat into the earth, had chosen to come to them instead.
The subterranean dweller filled the passage. D’Marr could not tell whether it was male, like the first, or female and did not really care. As an it, the Quel was terrible enough. With its good arm, it took the man with the spear and threw him into the soldiers behind him. The raider with the sword had wisely retreated already. D’Marr released his hold on his own weapon, having realized that he would be next if he insisted on maintaining his grip any longer. The young officer had no delusions that he could take on one of the beasts singlehanded.
Still . . . he reached for the rod by his side even as the Quel pawed at the blade buried in its wrist. Both arm wounds still bled profusely but the monster moved as if nothing were wrong.
“Don’t just gawk! Bring the spears in!”
There was a scream and then much commotion farther down the line. The Quel were no longer attacking one at a time. He had no time to concern himself with the others, however, for the one who had tried to kill him evidently was intent on completing its task. D’Marr suspected that the creatures had known all along that he was the leader of the invading force. The initial attacks might even have been made so that they could better locate him among the rest. He suspected that the Quel relied greatly on their sense of hearing or some similar trait when they moved through the ground.
With a loud, long hoot, the monster swung at him with one huge paw. D’Marr ducked away and pulled his staff free of his belt. He held the long rod before him. Several men with spears had now closed on the Quel. Two feinted from the left of the huge digger. When the Quel turned toward them, those on the right jabbed with their own spears. One caught the massive creature in the arm that had been wounded. This time, D’Marr’s adversary unleashed a shrill, unmistakable cry of agony. While it was thus occupied, the other lancers also attacked. Three spears penetrated the armored hide of the Quel.
So you do have a soft shell in places, the Aramite officer noted with some satisfaction. Like the creature it resembled, the Quel had less protection near the stomach region. That was not to say it was not protected well there, for two of the spears had snapped in that initial thrust, but of necessity the subterranean monster could not have as thick and hard a shell as it wore on its back. D’Marr had suspected as much from his time with the prisoner, but knew better than to trust that all the creatures were built the same way.
The Quel was staggering now, even its great stamina unable to compensate for the many dripping wounds. It took one last swipe at him and then began to back into the wall from which it had emerged.
“You’ll not be leaving us so soon,” hissed D’Marr. He thrust at the retreating Quel with his rod.
The wounded creature’s howl shook the tunnel and echoed on and on long after the huge figure had collapsed to its knees.
Orril D’Marr touched the tip of the rod to the armored head. He smiled with grim satisfaction as the Quel shivered, hooted mournfully, and finally slumped.
“Yesss . . . I thought all it needed was a little adjustment.” He looked from his conquered foe to his favorite toy. With the prisoner, he had overcompensated with the rod, killing the Quel. The short staff was a magical tool that he had inherited from his late predecessor, who had, in turn, paid dearly to have a sorcerer not of the keeper caste create it. It had thirty-two levels of pain, many of which could kill. The captive Quel had died from level twenty-one. He had given this one level twenty. D’Marr was quite pleased. Lord D’Farany would want hostages to question. It would make up for his earlier overzealousness.
The raider leader turned to aid in the other attacks, only to find that there were no longer any. He summoned one of the lesser officers.
The wolf raider, a bearded veteran named D’Roch who, like most of the men, had to look down at D’Marr, saluted him and nervously explained, “They simply withdrew, my lord. Right after that beast you took down howled.”
It seemed odd that they would abandon the attack simply because one of their number had fallen. Such cowardice went against the Aramite way. “How many were there?”
“Counting yours, sir, four.”
“Four?” D’Marr frowned slightly. They had only dared expend four of their kind in defense of the tunnel against a force the size of his? There was a piece of the puzzle missing. “This place is too lightly defended.”
It was clear that the other officer did not think so, but he was wise enough not to say anything.
A soldier returned D’Marr’s sword, carefully cleansed of all blood, to him. The young raider inspected the weapon, then sheathed it. The rod would serve him better, it seemed. With the blade, he would be dead long before he finished hacking up one of the beasts. They now feared the rod and D’Marr enjoyed nothing more than wielding fear.
He glanced down at the Quel. It still lived, if only barely. “Bind that thing tight and put it somewhere safe. Lord D’Farany may desire to see it.”
D’Roch saluted. “Yes, sir.”
“Re-form ranks. I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue on, do you?”
“No, sir. At once, sir.”
He had them under way in little more than a minute. They continued on down the passage, ever wandering deeper and deeper into the bowels of the earth. Once more, the trek became quiet, uneventful. The wolf raiders remained wary, however, for they had fallen prey to that trap once already.
D’Marr tapped the side of the rod against his leg. Where are you, you cowardly monsters? Come out and play with me!
The men began to mutter among themselves. There were whispers of plots involving the collapse of the entire length of the tunnel. The notion had entered D’Marr’s mind earlier, but he had felt no need to mention it. Lord D’Farany had given a command and it was their duty to obey. Now, destroying the passageway did not even seem a likely trick, for if they had wanted to do it, he was certain that the Quel would have been better off if they had collapsed the passage earlier. They had not done so, preferring to risk themselves in more personal assaults that, to him, indicated again that something was amiss.
It was at the end of the passage that he found the first clue to the truth. The cavern that suddenly materialized before them took everyone by surprise, so accustomed had the raiders become to the narrow tunnel by that point. D’Marr pushed his way past the foremost rank and stared, his eyes drinking in everything. The mask of indifference barely remained in place, for although he had had time to contemplate the world of the Quel, the Aramite had failed to fully imagine its scope.
In a cavern that was nearly a world of its own, the vast city of the subterranean race silently greeted its invaders.
Enough of it resembled a human city that they understood instantly what it was. There were buildings that rose several stories and paths that could only be roads of a sort. Everything had been carved from the very rock. The path on which D’Marr found himself standing circled around the edges of the expansive cave. At various points, new tunnels branched off into the earth.
There was one peculiarity that would forever forbid anyone from thinking that humans had built this place, for while with great effort it would have been possible for men to carve out part of the city in the cavern walls, no human would have been able to live in places turned at such haphazard angles as these. Hundreds of gaps and outcroppings had been turned into tunnels and quite obvious living quarters, but to utilize them, the inhabitants would have had to virtually hang by their feet and hands at all times at heights that would have meant instant death to even the hardiest. Only creatures with long claws that could dig into rock would be able to make use of so peculiar a design. Only something like a Quel could call this home.
That the invaders could see all of this was the result of yet another marvel. Even despite the fact that they were likely hundreds of feet below the surface, the vast cave glowed as if the sun itself shone above the city. Instead of a burning orb, however, a fantastic array of crystals somehow gave off enough light to fill the chamber with day. Gazing up at them, Orril D’Marr knew that they were somehow linked to the outside, that, in a sense, the sun did shine on this subterranean spectacle.
“It appears to be a little larger than we expected,” D’Marr muttered to no one in particular. He was beginning to appreciate the Quel and what they had accomplished. He was also beginning to appreciate what he had been sent to face by Lord D’Farany.
Granting him command of the assault forces had not been so much a reward for the information he had recovered from the captive, but rather a punishment for killing the beast before all his knowledge could have been squeezed from him.
Somewhere, he was certain, the blue man was laughing.
As the wonder of the place faded, the reality of what he saw finally sank into D’Marr’s mind. Where are they? Where are the cursed little beasts?
“Tell me what you see.”
The other raider frowned, not certain whether he was the focus of some game his superior was playing. He studied the city for a moment, hesitated, and then replied, “I see a vast underground city, the home of those abominations. It seems to be empty, but that shouldn’t be surprising since we’ve broken through their defenses.”
All in all, it was not a bad summation; the only one that could be given. Yet, it did not wholly describe what D’Marr saw and felt when he stared at the city of the Quel. “Nothing more?”
“And how long ago would you say that it had been abandoned? Minutes? An hour?”
D’Roch squinted as he studied the sight before him again. With great trepidation, the older raider answered, “It seems . . . it seems longer, sir. It seems . . . much longer.”
Slowly Orril D’Marr walked along the edge of the path. He tapped the head of the scepter lightly against the rock wall. After he had surveyed all he had desired to, the Aramite commander turned his bland visage back to his men. His voice was nearly a whisper. “Much longer, indeed. Look carefully at the dust, at the wear and tear that even a place buried so deep in the earth cannot escape. Think in terms of years. Try, perhaps, even centuries.”
There was confusion among the ranks. Word began to filter back. D’Roch and the other officers looked at one another, then at D’Marr.
He laughed then. It was not a pleasant sound, even to his ears, but he could not resist. When D’Marr realized that the others did not understand, he pointed at the city. “You unmitigated oafs! Look at our enemy! There he is! A city of the dead where maybe a handful of survivors still play with the power of their race! We are an army fighting the skeleton of a race!”
They still did not understand, he saw. D’Marr shook his head. He suspected now that there were probably no more than a dozen or so of the Quel, maybe even less. It would explain why only four had attacked them in the cramped quarters of the tunnel when a dozen, a hundred, could possibly have even eradicated them. He thought he understood why they had not collapsed the tunnel; they did not have the strength.
It was possible his suppositions were off the mark, but he was certain he was close. There was only one way to find out. The wolf raider glanced at each of the branch tunnels breaking off from the path circling the city. Most of them were exceedingly ordinary, but one to the right was wider and higher and D’Marr almost thought he saw some light source within.
“Re-form line. Single file,” he called back. Then, without waiting to see if they had obeyed his command, D’Marr started toward the other branch. “Follow me.”
There was a light source at the other end of the tunnel. The passage itself was not a long one, not after the first one, and it was wide enough to let four men pass side by side without being cramped. He had the officers redivide the ranks to accommodate, then pressed on. The glow teased him, taunted him. He was near to the truth, of that he was certain.
As if to add credence to his belief, the Quel renewed their attack.
The ceiling collapsed in the center of the tunnel, crushing several men and battering a number of others. From the hole dropped three of the armored leviathans, long, wicked battle-axes in their paws. Even as their feet touched ground, the Quel were swinging their weapons, taking full advantage of the wider and higher dimensions of this passage.
D’Marr cursed as the nearest ranks were decimated by the horrendous onslaught of the trio. With their tremendous reach and long weapons, the Quel had an advantage that not even the spears could overcome.
There are only three, he scolded himself. Only three.
Three they might be, but they were worth three times their number even without the advantages of their weapons. Two of the creatures were pushing back the men advancing into the tunnel while the third dealt with those, like D’Marr, who had been in front of the attempted cave-in.
Still, Orril D’Marr had planned for even worse than this. It was annoying that the creatures had already wreaked such havoc, but it had not been entirely unexpected. Having hunted one Quel, he had devised ways of dealing with them . . . if his men were still capable of following commands.
“D’Roch!” He searched for the other officer and found his battered corpse half buried under the rock from the collapse. D’Roch had probably not even seen his end coming. The loss was more of an annoyance than anything else; it meant that he would have to do the work himself.
Scepter in hand, he moved closer to the battle and shouted, “Keep the lines steady! Get the nets up front!”
A quick glance at the lancers showed that they had already spread out as best they could along the length of the tunnel. His own side was in a much worse position. He had only a few lancers and one of those died, his breastplate and chest sliced open like a piece of fruit, even as D’Marr looked on. His side also had none of the nets, for the men carrying those had perished with D’Roch in the tunnel collapse. There were, however, men with torches. Most of them were using the flames much the way D’Marr planned to, but with far less results than he hoped to have. The frustrated officer grabbed one of the men in the back and pulled him close.
“You’ll die wasting your time and mine like that, you lackhead! There’s a better way! Give me that!” He hooked the rod back onto his belt and stripped the blazing torch from the soldier’s hand. With his other hand, he reached into one of the small pouches that most raiders wore on their belts. From it, D’Marr removed a tiny leather bag with a single, thin string attached to the top. It was something he had been toying with just prior to Lord D’Farany’s decision to take the three ships and flee to the western edge of the Dragonrealm. He had experimented with three just like it only recently . . . and they had performed with perfection, enabling him to scuttle the vast raider ships virtually on his own.
As he adjusted the string, he calmly told the soldier, “Tell them to retreat three steps. Quickly if you please.”
D’Marr gave the man the count of five to warn his fellows, then lit the string. It sizzled and began burning down, the flame edging closer and closer to the bag and its contents. When he was satisfied that the string had burned low enough, the Aramite let the small pouch fly.
His aim, of course, was flawless. The bag struck the Quel in the chest, then fell to the ground. D’Marr was pleased to note that the beast’s reaction was what he would have expected from a human. The armored creature paused to glance down at the insignificant object, likely both puzzled and amused by the harmless assault.
The bag promptly exploded.
It was a much smaller amount than he had used on each of the ships, but it was still enough to tear the Quel to pieces. D’Marr brought his cloak up to avoid the majority of bits that he and his men were showered with. He smiled as he saw that he had been correct; the blast had not been strong enough to further weaken the ceiling. It would have been a bit embarrassing.
To his surprise, however, there was a second benefit to his attack of genius. The remaining Quel were on their knees, their weapons forgotten and their heads almost buried in the tunnel floor. They were hooting madly and rocking back and forth, clawing at the ground.
D’Marr was not one too slow to act when good fortune came his way. “Get the nets in fast while they’re stunned. Do hurry.”
The agonized creatures were still trouble despite their present state and for a short time he was tempted to take the scepter to each one in order to hurry things. Finally, when it became apparent that the injured Quel would indeed soon be nicely bound and out of the way, the wolf raider turned his attention to the haunting glow mere yards from him. Without hesitation, D’Marr started toward it, his sub-officers quickly following after, albeit with much more trepidation.
We’ve stepped into the heart of a diamond, was his first thought as he froze at the entrance to the chamber. Nothing else he had seen in the glittering realm of Legar, or anywhere else, for that matter, could have prepared him for this. Is there no end to your surprises, Dragonrealm? First, a glittering land, then a city beneath the surface, and now . . . this.
The walls were covered almost entirely in crystal, save where three other tunnels led off to other parts of the Quel domain. It was obvious that nature had not created this marvel. There were too many patterns, too many intricate designs, for it to be pure chance. The gemstones also came in a variety of colors that could never have formed together. Staring at it, D’Marr was reminded of the empty city and its light source. The crystals there had been arranged so that the subterranean dwellers could bring the sun to their world. Who was to say that this was not similar?
All this passed through the Aramite’s mind in the space of a breath. It was during the second that he noticed the Quel.
The hulking creature leaned across a platform of sorts upon which had been placed a large gem that was in turn surrounded by an array of smaller crystals. The Quel, a male, D’Marr judged, was waving his clawed hands above the arrangement in what was most definitely a desperate manner. Inhuman eyes glared back at the intruders, specifically the young officer. The creature was saying something, his hooting rising and falling with a rhythm that made it impossible not to listen. D’Marr was struck by the nagging thought that the Quel was working to keep their attention.
“I’m afraid that won’t work,” he quietly informed the armored underdweller. He knew that the Quel understood him by the narrowing of his black orbs. “Your power has been smothered by my Lord D’Farany’s might.” The raider commander inclined his head toward the officers to his left side. “Take him. Kill him if need be.”
As the wolf raiders rushed toward him, the Quel made one last pass over the crystal.
It glimmered. Only for a second, but it glimmered. The spell cast by Lord D’Farany still held, but D’Marr knew it must be weakening badly for something to happen this soon. It was fortunate, he thought, that they had not met any more resistance than they had. The power the beasts controlled was even greater than he had assumed.
The Quel hooted in satisfaction, then stepped away as he was surrounded. Unlike his fellows, he made no move to resist. At another time, Orril D’Marr would have been amused by the absurd sight of the creature calmly holding out his huge arms to be bound, but the Quel’s note of triumph disturbed his sensibilities. He studied the chamber carefully, seeking what clue he could not say.
Then it came to him that there were only two other tunnel entrances besides his own. When he had scanned the chamber earlier, D’Marr had been certain that there had been three. He turned to the nearest man and asked, “How many ways out of here were there when you came in?”
Looking puzzled and nervous, the soldier glanced around and answered, “I see two, my lord. Besides the one we entered by.”
“That’s not what I asked.” It was futile to explain, the young raider decided. Instead, he stalked over to the area where he recalled the missing entrance being and placed a hand against the wall. It was very solid. D’Marr ran his hand along the crystal, searching for anything that seemed not quite right. As far as he could discover, however, it was very, very real.
Taking the rod, he tapped lightly on the wall. A quiet but solid thud argued against there being a thin, false partition before him. This was a barrier of rock and crystal and a very thick one at that.
He was tempted to test its strength against one of his exploding bags, but knew that the Pack Leader would never forgive him if the chamber was damaged.
“You have my congratulations, Orril.”
His round visage carefully banal, D’Marr turned and saluted his master. He nearly grimaced when he saw that the blue man was with the Pack Leader. “I thank you, Lord D’Farany.”
The Aramite leader walked slowly into the room, his unnerving features fairly aglow with delight. “Yesss, this is it! This is what I felt!” He put a hand on the platform that the Quel had vacated. “A bit of study . . . and then we shall put it to use.”
D’Marr glanced at the Quel as Lord D’Farany finished speaking. If it was possible for one of the monsters to look almost smug, then this creature was exactly that. You have a secret, my little beast, and it’s yours for now. Enjoy that time. When the opportunity arises, I’ll take that secret of yours and everything else your mind holds.
He would be more careful than with the last one. This time, D’Marr would not let death rescue his prisoner. This time, he would squeeze every bit of knowledge from the beast no matter how long it took and how much pain it meant.
As his eyes returned to the glittering wall, he met his own gaze. The multifaceted crystals made the face behind the gaze a twisted, distorted thing, a creature almost as inhuman in appearance as the Quel . . . and far, far darker within.
TWO DAYS PASSED while Cabe sought news that might confirm his fears. There was, in that period, no reoccurrence of the vision and as evening of the second day came and aged, he began to have small doubts. Not about what both he and Aurim had seen, but how he had interpreted it.
That very night, those doubts were erased as he slept.
He was among them again. One of them. Clad in the green dragon-scale armor, they mounted their flying drakes and took to the air. The wind was hot against his face. There was something horribly wrong with the heavens, for there was no blue, but rather a sickly green vying with a bloody red. Clouds swirled like whirlpools and wild, free magic was rampant.
The lead rider—his father—turned to him and, in a voice that demanded obedience, called, “Don’t dawdle back there! We’ve far to go!”
Suddenly his father’s face stretched beyond belief. His body hunched over and his arms and legs became twisted. Wings burst forth from his backside . . .
A dragon loomed over him. He tried to turn his drake, but now he lay sprawled on a rocky plain, the animal nowhere to be found. The dragon, huge and terrible, lowered his head and hissed, “You cannot essscape what isss inevitable . . . you cannot escape . . .”
Then he, Cabe, found himself in the Legar Peninsula. He had barely time to register it when a shadow covered the land. The warlock raised his head and saw a vast sailing ship, black as pitch, slowly sinking toward him from the very sky. He tried to move, but pain suddenly jolted him. His head was on fire. It felt as if he were being torn apart.
Cabe glanced down at his hands, which tingled, and saw with horror that they were stretching, becoming more beastlike than human. Frantic, the spellcaster tried to reverse the effect, but it was as if his magic were no more. He could not even perceive the lines of force from which he drew his power.
The looming shape of the black vessel grew larger and larger. The ground beneath his feet trembled. Cabe was certain that he saw movement around him, as if large creatures lurked just below the surface.
The ship was almost upon him now. Cabe raised his hands in hopeless defense, then could not help stare at them despite the oncoming leviathan.
His hands were reptilian, the clawed paws of a dragon, but that was not what held his gaze so. It was the skin, a dragon hide that fairly glittered even in the shadow of the ebony ship.
He had become the Crystal Dragon.
Cabe woke sitting bolt upright, raw magical energy dancing and crackling at his fingertips. He shivered uncontrollably, not so much because of fear, but because the vision had looked and felt so very real.
Slim arms took hold of him in the dark and a concerned, caring voice whispered, “It’s all right, Cabe. Nothing was real. Nothing in the dream. You are in the Manor. You’re home.”
The quivering slowed, then finally ceased. He looked down at his upturned fingers and watched with vague satisfaction and relief as the glow about them dwindled to nothing.
“Gwen?” Blinking, the warlock turned toward the voice. His eyes adjusted to the dark, allowing him to make out the dim image of his wife. He conjured a small light instead of using his abilities to adjust his eyesight further. Changing any part of one’s form, even temporarily, was a task that required precise concentration for all but a few human mages. It was one area where the drakes would always be superior in the arts of sorcery. He was surprised that he was even able to create the light, considering how turbulent his mind presently was.
She pulled him close and kissed him, more from relief than anything else. They held each other tight for several moments, then Cabe finally broke the embrace. He looked into her eyes. “I had another vision.”
“I suspected as much. It’s not a memory of the Manor, is it?”
“Hardly.” Wiping his hand across his face, he related to her the various images and events he had suffered through. Describing them, however, brought them back to life for him and by tale’s end he was shaking again, albeit not near as much as the first time.
Gwen took his hands and held them until long after the shaking had ended. “Something has to be done.”
“We both know what, Gwen.”
The enchantress squeezed hard. The strength in her hands was amazing. “Don’t even think of it, my love.”
“What other way is there? This is too demanding. I am either wanted by someone or something or I’m suffering some sort of premonition . . . and it all points to the Legar Peninsula in the end. That means the Crystal Dragon.”
She did not want to believe that, he saw. In truth, he really did not want to believe it, either. Of all the Dragon Kings, the Crystal Dragon was the most enigmatic, the most ominous. Even the late Ice Dragon or Storm, the drake lord who ruled Wensils, the marshy, rain-drenched land far to the northeast, were definable dangers. No one knew much about the Crystal Dragon, not even his fellow monarchs. He had stepped in during the last rage of his northern counterpart, Ice, and, with what seemed a simple gesture, had helped turn inevitable defeat into salvaged victory. In the years since then, he had been silent, ignoring the vast changes in the Dragonrealm that steered it closer and closer to being a human world.
“The lord of Legar tolerates intruders in his domain, Cabe, but not when their interest lies in him. His predecessors were all the same, it’s said. Secretive and hermitic, yet more than willing to raise their power against those few who dared to disturb them. The Crystal Dragon, whether this one or any of his ancestors, has always been a creature to avoid at all costs. Look what arrogance cost the Ice Dragon.”
“I’ve been to the peninsula before, Gwen, and not always by choice.”
“But you never sought him out! That’s the difference, Cabe! This time, you may end up confronting him! I don’t like the thought of that happening!”
The warlock sighed. “I don’t like it, either, but what else can I do?”
Gwen paused, then suggested, “Why not go to the Dagora Forest? Perhaps he can help.”
“The Green Dragon?”
Her voice took on an urgent tone. “You know he will do for you what he can. At least hear his advice.”
He considered her words. Green’s borders, now extending into the realm once called the Barren Lands, were close to those of the Crystal Dragon. The Barren Lands had once been ruled by their counterpart, Brown, but after his death, which a young Cabe had unwittingly caused, the Master of the Dagora Forest had claimed them for his own. The Crystal Dragon, in typical fashion, had remained silent on the matter.
If anyone might be aware of something amiss in the peninsula, it would be the Dragon King Green.
“All right, I’ll go to him. It’s possible that he might be able to explain what’s happening to me.” Cabe stiffened. “Or to Aurim!”
“Aurim!” Gwen released his hands, recalling what her husband had told her about their son’s sharing of the vision. The warlock was suddenly alone in bed. It took him a moment to realize what she had done. By that time, the enchantress had already returned.
“He’s sleeping,” she said, relief paramount in her voice. “Sleeping quietly. This time he must not have shared it with you.”
Cabe rubbed his chin. “Why earlier and not now? It doesn’t make sense.” He frowned. “No, it does. This is no premonition. Someone does want me . . . me alone. It must be the Crystal Dragon!”
Gwen took his hands again. “Even if it is, talk to Lord Green first. Please.”
“Don’t worry; I will.” He took her in his arms and the two of them lay down again. “I promise you that.”
It was near dawn when Cabe was at last able to relax enough to sleep.
ALTHOUGH HE HAD known the Green Dragon since his earliest days as a spellcaster, it made his audience with the monarch of the great forest land of Dagora no less imposing. He was, after all, facing one of the Dragon Kings, the legendary rulers of the continent. Until his own involvement with them, Cabe would have never believed that the drake lords were in the twilight of their reign. There were few things in the Dragonrealm he found as overwhelming as the draconian monarchs even after having watched their empire crumble to a few deeply divided kingdoms suspicious of each other and of the humans who were taking their place.
Green was different, though. He had accepted the decline of power as a natural course for his race, yet the drake had no intention of merely letting his people fade away. He wanted to see both races working together, for in that was his own future.
Cabe liked to consider the reptilian monarch his friend as well as his ally and he hoped that the Dragon King felt the same way.
“To what do I owe this visitation, Cabe Bedlam? It is not yet the time for a report on the progress of the emperor’s hatchlings.”
“They fare well enough, though,” Cabe informed him. “The same problems still exist with Kyl.”
“Of course. He is like his progenitor.”
The lord of the Dagora Forest sat in an immense, human-style throne carved from rock and situated atop a marble dais in the back of the vast underground cavern complex that was the lair of his clans. Like so many of the drake race, he had a fondness for the humanoid shape, eschewing his original dragon form for it for months at a time. In Cabe’s opinion, the dragon people were becoming more and more human with each generation.
There were those, however, who would argue that and would point out the Green Dragon as their example. Humanoid though he was, the Dragon King was most definitely not human. To the eye, the seated monarch resembled a tall, massive knight clad in dragon-scale armor of the finest detail. He would have been more than seven feet in height had he been standing. In truth, the drake lord resembled more what an elfin lord would have looked like were those folk inclined to such warriorlike garb and not the lighter woodland outfits they wore. The armor was a vibrant shade of green, a forest green that spoke of the strength and majesty of the vast wooded region. It covered the Dragon King from his feet to his neck, only giving way above, where the helm, with its intricate dragon’s head crest, nearly covered all else.
It was impossible not to stare at the dragon head, for anyone who stood before one of the drake lords would certainly feel that the head was staring back. The crests of the wolf raiders were crude in comparison. With their long snouts, toothy maws curled back in what was almost a smile, and narrow, seeking eyes, the dragon heads looked almost alive . . . and very hungry. It was not so surprising. The crest was more than simple decoration; it was the true visage of the Dragon King. The face within the helm was a mere parody of humanity. The face above the helm was the reality. In fact, the entire image the drake presented was false. What seemed like armor was actually his very skin. The scale armor was dragonscale still attached to the original. His helm could not have been removed, for it was his head as much as what was within pretended to be. In attempting to make use of the human form, which they had found so practical for so many things, this had been as close as the male drakes could come. Their progress was slower than that of the female drakes, although no one could say why. Yet, if Kyl and Grath were any indication, the next generation of males had finally crossed the barrier . . . in terms of appearance. Like the Dragon King before him, they still had much to learn about humanity itself.
For that matter, so did many humans.
Cabe forced himself not to focus on the crest, which always tended to draw his eyes first. “I come on a matter of great urgency, my Lord Green, and I thank you for this swift audience. I realize I was very abrupt when I requested it.”
The Dragon King lifted his head, and if there had been anyone in the chamber still thinking that the figure before Cabe could be human, now would have crushed any such foolish notion. From within the false helm, two bloodred eyes burned into those of the warlock. Although the helm obscured much, there were glimpses of a flat and scaly visage. There was no nose, only two slits. When the drake lord spoke, his lipless mouth revealed the sharp teeth of a predator. A parody it might be, but the humanoid visage that the Dragon King wore was in its own way almost as terrible because of that.
A narrow, forked tongue darted out on occasion when the Dragon King spoke, yet except for some slight sibilance every now and then, he spoke more clearly and precisely than many humans. “Sssso formal, friend warlock! It truly must be an urgent matter then, if you would speak to me so.”
The chamber was empty of all save them, which had been as Cabe had requested. Torches lit the great chamber. Its rock walls were too smooth, which long ago had led Cabe to the conjecture that one of the Dragon King’s ancestors had dug it all out. There were plants of all shapes and sizes in the cavern and skillfully woven tapestries, some incredibly ancient, decorated most of the walls. Some Dragon King long ago had worked hard to make his lair a thing of beauty and had succeeded, but the dark-haired mage was by no means calmed by the regal setting. It was never possible to forget that this was the nest of a dragon and had been so for countless generations.
Cabe had debated on a number of ways to begin, but none of them had seemed satisfactory. Being blunt still appeared to be the best route. “My lord, I seek information concerning events in the realm of your brother, the Crystal Dragon.”
“Do you?” The Dragon King could not entirely mask his surprise. “And why do you desssire this?”
The warlock stepped closer, stopping only when he stood at the bottom of the dais. He kept his face devoid of all emotion. “I believe something is happening there. I believe it may involve the wolf raiders.”
“Aaah?” Now he truly had the drake lord’s attention. If there was a threat other than human magic that the Dragon Kings respected, it was the ever-hungry wolf packs of the Aramites. The black ships had been a scourge that even the most cunning of the Dragon Kings had been unable to put an end to. The revolt that had forced the Aramites to abandon their plundering had been a blessing. “Tell me more, friend Cabe.”
Cabe told him of the visions, leaving out nothing. The Dragon King was silent throughout. The warlock knew that his host was already considering possible meanings to the visions and what those meanings might demand of him. By the time Cabe was finished, the drake lord had already formulated some thoughts of his own on the subject.
“I have heard rumors, but this . . . It should not surprissse me that the wolf raiders have come to the Dragonrealm. They are your kind at their most tenacious. If they have chosen the lands of my brother Crystal, then I cannot possibly predict what might occur. The lord of Legar is an enigma even to his brethren.” The Dragon Kings all called one another brother, but the term referred to their supposedly equal status, not any blood relation. As far as the mage knew, none of the surviving kings were truly brothers.
“Have you no contact with him . . . in any way?”
“He is not one for conversation, human. Ever has his line kept to itself. He does not seek our company, and in truth, we have ever avoided his.”
Cabe considered this. “You have no contact with him?”
The drake lord bared his teeth, but not because of any anger toward the mage. Rather, he appeared frustrated at himself. “I have no contact, friend warlock. No spies. Through no method have I ever succeeded in divining his purposes . . . if he has any. Do not think that I have not tried. Do not think that my brothers have not tried, too.”
“What about the rest of Legar?”
A reptilian smile briefly crossed the shadowed countenance. The Green Dragon straightened, then rose from his throne. Cabe did not step back, as many would have done, but merely crooked his neck and looked up. He knew the Green Dragon well enough to know that the monarch respected more those who stood up to him. “Of the rest of Legar, there is generally nothing of interest, friend Cabe. The land glitters, but it is devoid of a soul. One might as well observe the snow-smothered Northern Wastes, for there is just as likely something happening there as there is in the hot, dry domain my brother rules.” The smile died. The Dragon King stepped down from the dais so that he was more or less at eye level with his guest. “Yet, I trust your word and your judgment when you say that now that may have changed. You make me curious for the first time.” He paused, then hissed. “If you will join me on a short walk, perhaps there is a way to answer your questions . . . and your fears.”
“Where are we going?”
“I have been awaiting the opportunity to test a creation of mine. I see no reason why this should not be the perfect time. Come. It would be better to show it to you before I explain.”
The drake lord led him into one of the branching tunnels and through the mazelike passages that were common among the lairs of his kind. Some of the passages were huge, perfect for a full-grown dragon, but others, newer, were designed strictly for creatures the size of a man or a drake in human form. Cabe knew that many Dragon Kings, especially the line that had ruled Dagora, often had human servants, but they did not generally dig their tunnels to accommodate those servants. The smaller pathways had come into existence about the time that the drakes had begun to favor the humanoid forms.
They came at last to a pair of plain bronze doors, something rare in the depths of a dragon lair. The bronze doors indicated how valuable the contents of the chamber behind them were to the woodland monarch. Four guards, all human, interestingly enough, were another good sign that any who trespassed here forfeited everything.
At a gesture from the drake lord, the guards stepped aside and the doors swung open. The reptilian ruler waved a taloned hand at the warlock, indicating he should enter first.
Cabe never knew what to expect when he was brought to the Green Dragon’s inner sanctum. Each time, something was different. The lords of Dagora had always been scholars, their prime interests tending to run either to the vast history of the continent or the workings of magic as various races used it. There was no one save perhaps the Crystal Dragon who knew as much.
To a mage, the chamber was a collection worthy of envy. Seeker medallions hung next to tapestries by a race whose face and form not even the Dragon King knew. The tapestries were older than anything else and the images always revolved around landscapes that did not exist, at least now, anywhere in the realm. There were bottles filled with specimens of both animal and vegetable origin and row upon row of great tomes, many of which the drake lord had long ago admitted he had yet to decipher.
The Dragon King turned to the guards. “You may close the doors. No one is to enter, no matter what you might hear. That includes everyone.”
“Yes, my lord,” the men chorused. Two of them took hold of the handles and pulled the bronze doors shut. The Green Dragon’s human servants were ever swift and thorough in their obedience, but unlike those who served many of the other drake lords, these obeyed out of pure loyalty. The Masters of the Dagora Forest had almost always cared for their humans as much as they did their own kind.
When they were alone, the reptilian knight turned back to his guest. “Have no concern, Massster Cabe. The warning was more for the sake of our privacy than to hint of any danger to our beings.”
“I hoped as much.” Despite the words of his host, however, Cabe was not completely at ease. Any venture that involved delving into the realm of the Crystal Dragon had to have at least a tiny element of danger inherent in it.
The Green Dragon stalked toward a small alcove in which a pedestal no higher than the warlock’s waist stood. Carved into the flat top of the marble artifact was an array of symbols that looked vaguely familiar to him. The memory was so distant and hazy, however, that he wondered if perhaps it was not one of his own but rather something left over from when he had shared the memories of Nathan.
“This is what I wished to show you. It isss far superior to anything that my brothers have . . . save perhaps the one we seek to learn more of. I have only recently completed its creation; one would almost think that your request had been foreseen by the Dragonrealm itself.”
The warlock did not like to think about that. Too often, it seemed that the Dragonrealm somehow controlled his life and the lives of those he cared for. “What does it do? How does it work?”
“An explanation now would pale against the actuality. It is best if you simply observe.”
Cabe watched as the Dragon King first passed his hand over the symbols and then touched three of them. Again, a memory of the far past teased Cabe, but he forced it down. All that he knew was that the patterns carved into the pedestal were of a language of sorts, but not the common tongue spoken by humans and drakes. However, there had been many races that had preceded the Dragon Kings and at least some of them had spoken and written in other tongues. In the Dragonrealm, there were even those kingdoms where the written form of Common was undecipherable by any save those who had grown up learning it. When time permitted, he would ask the Dragon King about the markings, but now there were more important tasks at hand.
As he completed a second arrangement of symbols, the drake lord explained some of what he was doing. “The patterns are directly tied to specific forces in the Dragonrealm, almost the way a sorcerer’s mind is when he reaches out to use power, but more precisely. There isss less chance for random failure due to a lack of concentration and a greater ability to focus on specific regions or even individualsss.” The drake’s sibilance grew as he became excited about the subject. “It alssso drains the mage usssing it less than mossst mechanisms becaussse it does not require the great amount of willpower that cryssstals often do.”
The Green Dragon performed one more pass over the pedestal, then stepped back.
“What happens now?”
“Wait . . . and watch.”
At first, it was only a small black spot. It hovered over the center of the artifact, slowly growing. When it was the size of his hand, its form shifted, making it look more like a dark cloud about to unleash a tempest. He almost expected to see lightning and torrential rains. Slowly, though, the cloud thinned until it was almost transparent. As it thinned it continued to grow. Only when the dark mass was the size of Cabe’s chest did it stop. By this point, he could see the wall beyond through it, but other than that, there was nothing, not even the most vague of images. After several anxious breaths, he finally could wait no longer. “Is there something wrong?”
“No,” was all the drake replied.
Even as the Dragon King spoke, the thin cloud convulsed. Cabe almost took a step back, but when he saw that the Dragon King was nodding his head, he realized that this was part of the spell. The cloud continued to convulse, but now the changes in its form became specific things. Leaning forward, Cabe held his breath as he realized what he was seeing. The things became true shapes and the shapes became distinct features. Tiny hills sprouted and ravines deepened. The upper half of the vision turned blue as the heavens divided from the earth. The now nearly formed landscape suddenly glistened as light from an unseen source blanketed it.
A miniature world had blossomed into being. No, not a world, Cabe corrected himself, but simply a portion of one. A very familiar one.
It was the rocky, glittering hills of Legar. They floated before the two, not as some flat image, but as a very real place. It was as if someone had stolen a part of the land, shrunken it down, and brought it before them. The warlock wanted to reach forward and see if he could touch it, but he knew that the sight before him was illusion, nothing more.
“What do you think, Master Bedlam?”
“It’s . . . nothing’s good enough, my lord. The detail is unbelievable!”
“We can focus on even smaller areas. Like so.”
The image changed. This time, it had magnified so much that Cabe could now make out individual leaves on one of the few hardy bushes that dotted the viewed region. A small creature no bigger than his hand scuttled from under a rock to the bush.
“That wasss the easy part,” his host commented. The Green Dragon’s entire body spoke of sudden uncertainty. “What we see is on the very borders of the peninsula. Now, we mussst delve deeper into Legar . . . and that will most certainly invite the interest of my brother!”
“You don’t intend to try to contact him?”
“It may be that we can learn what we need to know without resorting to that.”
The dark-haired spellcaster glanced surreptitiously at his companion. He’s afraid of the Crystal Dragon! Immediately after thinking that, Cabe felt ashamed. Not afraid. More wary than afraid. The Green Dragon knew and respected the power of his counterpart to the west. Cabe, having witnessed that power in the past, understood some of what the Master of Dagora must be thinking. No one, not even the most vicious of the Dragon Kings, wanted to invite the wrath of the Crystal Dragon down upon them.
Yet, if the lord of Legar was so great a power in the realm, what did Cabe’s visions mean? What was there that might threaten the enigmatic drake lord and the rest of the Dragonrealm as well?
How were the wolf raiders involved? By themselves could they possibly be so great a danger? He wished that he knew more about the Crystal Dragon.
He wished that someone did.
The Green Dragon touched the markings again. The image wavered, then shifted as the Dragon King sought to journey deeper into the domain of his counterpart. They saw nothing unusual at first, simply the same crystal-encrusted hills and the occasional bit of plant life. Now and then, a bird flew overhead, likely on its way to more hospitable climes. The image of the first such avian amused Cabe, who almost expected it to go flying beyond the edge of the scene and on into the chamber where he stood.
After several minutes of this, however, the warlock grew impatient. He began to wonder whether the Green Dragon might be just a little hesitant about moving toward the western shores of the peninsula. Cabe very much respected the monarch of Legar, probably at least as much as the drake lord beside him, but Green had not suffered through the visions. Cabe wanted an answer and he wanted it soon. At the present rate of progression, it would be some time before they even reached the central lands, the region where the clan caverns of the Crystal Dragon were supposed to start.
“My lord.” His determination slipped a bit as the drake turned his blazing eyes to him, but Cabe persevered. “My lord, can’t we leap from where we are now and view the western tip of Legar? If, as I believe, the answer lies out there, then we may discover it and be done with this within a matter of minutes.”
The Dragon King vacillated, then, with great reluctance, nodded agreement. “Asss you say, it might indeed speed the matter to an end. Very well, give me but a moment, warlock, and I will sssee what I can do.”
Cabe wished he could help, if only to encourage the drake to greater swiftness, but the Dragon King did not ask for his assistance and there was no way that he could offer it without the reptilian monarch taking the offer as a slight to his courage. He satisfied himself with trying to ready his own courage in the face of whatever the magical window revealed to them, especially if what it revealed was the enraged visage of the Crystal Dragon.
“Odd. Very odd.”
The warlock glanced up. “What?”
“There is . . . something . . . blocking our view. See for yourself, Cabe.”
He looked. Over the pedestal, the image that had earlier been conjured wavered and twisted, becoming more of a distorted shadow of its former self. Superimposed on that vision, however, was another. In that one, a much less distinct image than even the first had become, Cabe could make out the movement of several figures. Whether they were human or not was impossible to say, but Cabe stiffened when he realized that all of them were dark, possibly black.
“Sssomething is fighting it!” snarled the Dragon King. His unease had vanished, replaced now by annoyance that something had dared wreak havoc with his creation. He passed his taloned hands over a different arrangement of symbols. The images only became more tangled. Now it looked as if the ghostly figures were trying to walk through the hills.
“By the Dragon of the Depths!” The furious drake lord tried another arrangement, evidently hoping that some combination of forces would overcome the unknown obstacle. Both visions dwindled away, this time to be replaced by a thick, grayish cloud that sparkled as it turned slowly within itself, almost as if a legion of fireflies had gotten themselves trapped in the maelstrom. The Green Dragon stepped away, clearly taken aback by this latest result. After a moment of contemplation, though, he reached once more for the markings on the pedestal.
There was a flash. A sparkling field of light engulfed the unsuspecting drake.
As the flash died, a head filled the air above the artifact; it was the startled countenance of none other than the Crystal Dragon. There was no mistaking the other Dragon King. Only one drake had skin that gleamed like diamond.
His body quivering violently, the Green Dragon shrieked and then fell backward; the face vanished.
Cabe leapt to the side of his companion, the magical window all but forgotten in his concern. He knelt beside the drake, who still quivered, and checked his breathing. It was ragged, but strong enough that the warlock was fairly certain he would live. Taking the Dragon King’s hands, Cabe saw that the drake had been burned bad in each palm. He used a spell to ease the damage and was relieved to note that it was successful. Injuries caused by high magic were sometimes impossible to repair.
As he lowered the Dragon King’s hands, he became aware of the heavy silence that had befallen the chamber. It was the sort of silence, Cabe somehow felt, that preceded utter catastrophe.
From where he knelt, the warlock turned.
An ebony hand vast enough to engulf both Cabe and the Dragon King stretched forth from the pedestal.
Cabe knew that unleashing sheer power at the thing might result in devastation encompassing more than just the chamber, for the Seeker medallions on the shelves alone likely held enough potent force in them to do that. If his wild spell destroyed the talismans, that power would also be released. With all that the Master of the Dagora Forest’s collection held, it went without saying that the medallions would surely not be the only magical artifacts to unleash their long-imprisoned forces.
With no time to consider a counterattack, Cabe chose instead to simply defend. Moving one hand in a swift arc, he surrounded the two of them with a transparent shield. It was basic but potent, one of the earliest spells that he had learned to use by instinct alone.
The fingers of the darksome hand struck the surface of the invisible shield and stopped. Cabe could almost sense the frustration. The guiding force behind the hand was not deterred, however. Readjusting so that its fingers completely gripped the outer limits of the barrier, the malevolent extremity squeezed.
Cabe Bedlam knew that the scene above him was merely the visible representation of two spells seeking to counter each other, but it was impossible not to believe that a real hand was slowly closing upon him. His own spell was buckling already, a sign that whoever or whatever fought him was not only adept at sorcery but was able to draw together forces that would have overwhelmed even Cabe, whose own ability was not slight.
Yet, in the end, the shield accomplished its task. Given a precious moment, he now struck back. There was no need to waste further seconds seeking some elaborate solution. Cabe summoned up a spell that was as much a part of him as it had once been a part of Nathan, his grandfather. A golden bow formed before him, a golden bow that had, in the past, killed a Dragon King. It was a legacy from Nathan. The few sorcerers who had been able to create and make use of it, for the binding of the necessary powers was a time-consuming and touchy matter, had been called such things as the Sunlancers, although Sun Archers would have been more appropriate. The spell took much out of those mages and they were often not able to re-create the bow for months after, but one shot was all that was ever needed. As much as it took out of the spellcaster, it took more out of the target.
A single, gleaming shaft, a streak of blinding brilliance, shot forth from the bow. The shaft flew unimpeded through the shield, since they shared both common origin and cause, and struck the menacing hand. Barely slowed, it continued through the palm and out the other end before Cabe could even blink.
As the sunlit arrow exited, the black hand released its grip and thrashed madly in the air above the warlock. Breathing heavily, Cabe strengthened his shield as best he could, but the act proved unneeded, for the hand was already fading, its magic disrupted and, hopefully, its caster painfully regretting his assault on the two. By the time Cabe drew another breath, the magical menace was no more. Had not the Green Dragon been lying unconscious and injured by his side, he almost would not have believed that the attack had ever happened, for nothing else in the room had been touched by it, not even the pedestal.
Secure, the warlock removed the defensive barrier and hurried to the bronze doors. He took hold of one and flung it open. The anxious but ready gazes of more than two dozen guards, both human and drake, met his own. Cabe pointed behind himself. “Get in here, quick! Your master may need aid! I can’t promise that my spell of healing dealt with all the injuries he suffered!”
There was much visible apprehension. The Dragon King had never allowed more than a handful of his subjects, be they drake or men, into his sanctum. Fortunately, the health of their master outweighed their fear of disobedience. A half-dozen or so sentries darted around Cabe and seized the unconscious Dragon King by the arms and legs. With great care but also great speed, they carried their master out of the chamber. Cabe assured himself that all was now calm in the room, then followed.
He turned at the doorway and quickly commanded, “No one is to enter again without your lord’s permission. There may yet be some danger in there. Is that understood?”
The remaining guards nodded. The spellcaster wasted no more time on them. He knew that the Green Dragon would receive the best of aid from his people and that there was no real need for him to attend, but guilt forced him on after the injured monarch and his attendants. It was his fault that the Dragon King had become involved in this, his fault that the drake had pushed further than had been safe.
Now more than ever, Cabe knew he had to journey to the inhospitable land of Legar. The images and the attack had only fueled his curiosity and resolve. It was not likely, based on what he had seen, that the Crystal Dragon had been at the heart of the attack. Moreover, that Dragon King had looked truly stunned by the intrusion into his kingdom. No, the attack had come from elsewhere, and although it was hardly evidence enough, the black hand that had nearly taken the two of them seemed to speak to Cabe of the wolf raiders. Worse, it spoke of wolf raiders with power, keepers such as the Gryphon had once spoken of. Cabe had thought that the Aramite sorcerer caste was no more; at least, the lionbird had hinted as much.
Whatever it was that threatened from the domain of the Crystal Dragon, he would have to face it, but he would have to face it alone. The Green Dragon was helpless. Gwen, the warlock knew, would desire to join him once she saw that he could not be turned from this, but they had long ago made a rule, one that even she would be forced to abide by, wherein one parent would remain with the children during such times. There had to be someone to watch over them. They could not risk both of them and possibly leave Aurim and Valea, not to mention the drakes under their care, without a ready protector. Aurim was too wild to leave in control yet and Kyl . . . Kyl was not ready, either.
There was no choice. Cabe would have to journey to the Legar Peninsula on his own.
Unless . . . he hesitated in the passageway, the servants and their burden momentarily pushed from his immediate concerns. There was one other he could turn to for help, if he could only find him. The trouble there was that Cabe might search the entire Dragonrealm without success, for the one he sought was not bound by this world nor any other. The warlock could not waste the time on such a prolonged search; whatever events were unfurling in the domain of the Crystal Dragon might at any moment come to a head. At most, Cabe could spare a day, maybe two.
Still, it would be worth it if he could find Darkhorse.
“D’RANCE! THERE YOU are. Rummaging through garbage again?”
The blue man, his cloak wrapped around his angular form almost like a shroud, turned to face his shorter counterpart. Unlike the others, his cloak also had a hood, which was presently pulled so far forward that it almost reached his eyes. His helm and gloves lay to the side on a makeshift table he was using for his work. One hand emerged from the obscuring cape and deposited a small, crystalline statuette onto the same table. The chamber that he had chosen for his work—and his privacy—had evidently once been the equivalent of a Quel library, but only a few loose fragments of scrollwork and crystal still remained. D’Rance was of the opinion that the rest had been spirited away by diggers that still remained at large, but he had so far not seen any reason to share his theory with his companions. “I have been here some time, Orril D’Marr, yes, and what I do is not rummaging. My lord has instructed me to inspect all questionable items of the diggers. There may be artifacts of power, talismans, yes, among what you so blindly label ‘garbage.’”
The young officer responded with an indifferent shrug. The blue man silently cursed the Quel for being unable to rid his life of the insolent little martinet. He had a knack of stepping in at the wrong times, almost as if he had a sixth sense. Steeling himself, D’Rance grated, “I must assume, D’Marr, that you have some reason for disturbing me, yes? Or is it that you have come to love my company?”
“Something happened . . . some surge from the beastmen’s thing, that magical device. Our Lord D’Farany requests your presence so that you might aid him in unraveling the mystery. He’s been requesting your presence for several minutes now and he doesn’t like being kept waiting. You and I both know that.”
The blue man turned away from D’Marr and, using the same hand as before, picked up another of the artifacts the blindly obedient soldiers under his command had gathered for him. He pretended to study it, but in reality he had been forced to turn because at that moment it had come close to being impossible to hide the truth of what he was actually doing. The strain would have shown on his face. Unlike D’Marr, Kanaan D’Rance was a creature of emotions, more so than even many of his own kind. But just this once and only in this matter, I would wish to wear a mask with the skills that you do, little man, yes!
“I will be but a moment. You need not wait, yes.”
“Lord D’Farany’s waiting. I think he has something.”
Forcing his hand not to shake, the blue man put down the second figurine. He looked over his shoulder. “As I said, I will be but a moment.”
A thin smile played fleetingly across D’Marr’s countenance. D’Rance knew that it was because one took a deadly chance when one did not leap to respond to a summons from the Pack Leader. It was something that D’Rance had never adjusted to and he knew that only his usefulness to his master had kept him from being punished for his continuous transgressions. D’Marr, he knew, was hoping that this latest might be the final straw. The blue man did not care. He needed a few more minutes before he could dare go before Lord D’Farany. Summons or not, he risked more by responding now rather than waiting until he was better able to compose himself. His secrets had to remain his secrets.
He noted how one of Orril D’Marr’s hands touched the pommel of the Aramite’s favorite toy, the magical rod he liked to use too often on others. The scepter would be the death of him if D’Rance did not kill him first.
“I’ll inform our lord of your response.”
“Do that, yes.”
With obvious anticipation, a silent D’Marr departed. The blue man watched him disappear from sight, then exhaled sharply. He thought of how his counterpart would relate his response to the Pack Leader. There would be much embellishment. D’Rance would have to speak with a silver tongue, but he had always been good at that. It had gotten him across the vast sea to the land of his goals and it would keep him in the good graces of the Pack Leader until the blue man was ready to abandon the raiders to whatever fate was in store for them. You have shown me much, yes, my Lord Ivon D’Farany, and I thank you, although you could not know just how much you truly taught me, no . . .
Allowing the cloak to fall away, he stared at the hand he had hidden from D’Marr.
Visibly, there was no sign of a wound, not even the smallest mark. Yet the pain still coursed through him as if someone had thrust a knife into his palm. The hand was twisted into a shape more the parody of a bird’s claw than a human extremity. Even the slightest movement caused the pain to increase a hundredfold, but he could wait no longer. He had to straighten it now.
Gritting his teeth, the blue man strained to bend his fingers back. Sweat poured down his forehead as he fought the pain. Slowly, the hand resumed a somewhat more normal appearance, although even achieving that resulted in yet more excruciating torture. In the end, D’Rance could not help moan under his breath. He would somehow find the one who had done this and make him regret it all.
It had been foolish, he knew, to test himself so soon, but the opportunity had presented itself like a gift and the blue man, unable to resist, had leapt in. His reward had been the agony.
But it goes better, he consoled himself. I grow more skilled, yes . . .
Forcing himself to use his injured hand, the better to begin living with the pain, D’Rance removed his hood. He began to pick up the helm, then thought better of it. Glancing around to make certain that he would not be interrupted, he pulled from one of the pouches on his belt a small looking glass. Raising it to eye level, the northerner held it so that he could see the left side of his head.
A tiny streak of silver in his hair, a streak that had only weeks ago not existed at all, greeted his gaze.
The blue man smiled. He was making definite progress, yes.
“IF YOU THINK that I’ll let you make this journey alone, Cabe, then you’ve not known the true me even after all these years!”
Had he been anyone else, the warlock would have been more than a little fearful at the sight his wife now presented. She was, for the moment, the woodland goddess, the Lady of the Amber, that many still thought her. Power radiated from her. Her brilliant scarlet tresses fluttered with a life of their own and she seemed to stand almost twice as tall as Cabe. Her emerald eyes sparkled bright, twin green flames that, at other times, had driven him to pleasant distraction. The expression on her face he had only seen once or twice in the past and both those times had been when her children had been threatened.
It hurt him to see her like this, for he knew that it was only her love and fear for him that had raised such a fury.
“You know what we agreed, Gwen. It’s not for us; it’s for the children. It isn’t fair to risk both of us. Someone has to be there for them . . . just in case. You were the one who originally thought that up, remember.”
“I know.” She looked bitter. “But it would be easier if it was me who had to take the risk. Then I’d know that you were safe and watching the children. Whatever I faced, I would be able to face it better knowing that.”
“And I wouldn’t? Gwen, you know that you’re my partner as well as my mate, but this time it has to be me and me alone. The visions came to me—”
He conceded her point. “But I think it might be because he and I are so much alike in many ways. The second time, only I saw the images. Besides, I can’t take him with me. He’s not ready . . . unless his control has greatly benefited from the other day.”
Gwen managed a smile. “This morning I found one of the stick men wandering through the garden. Apparently, when Aurim tried to reverse his spell, he couldn’t keep track of them all and this one escaped. No, even if I was willing to risk our son—which I am not—I agree that he is not ready.”
“But I will not let you go alone, either. At least wait for the Green Dragon to recover.”
“It’ll be too late. Physically, the attack did little, but magically, it’s drained him. He’ll be too weak for some time.” The warlock strode the length of the bedroom to one of the windows overlooking the gardens. Below, the people whose lives he guided went about their daily activities, only vaguely aware that some important event now occupied the interests of their lord and lady. The two spellcasters had been at this since waking . . . actually, since the night before, when he had broached the subject. He had waited until he was certain of the Dragon King’s condition, because he had hoped the same as her. The Master of the Dagora Forest had agreed that the situation was too great to ignore and had wanted to join him, but at the moment he was even less capable of aiding Cabe than the warlock’s young daughter Valea was.
“Then I have to go with you.” She joined him by the window, leaning against his back and putting her arms around him. “We will have to ask Toos to watch the children.”
“I can just see that. I have another idea.”
“What?” Her tone indicated that any idea would be welcome as long as it meant that he would be safe. Unfortunately, both of them knew that there could be no such idea as long as he planned to journey into the depths of Legar, especially if there were wolf raiders there.
“I’m going to try to find Darkhorse. I think I know where he might be and I think that he would be willing to help.”
There had been a time, long ago, when the mere mention of the demonic creature would have brought nothing but a stone silence from the enchantress. Darkhorse was a thing of the Void, an empty place beyond the plane of men. Though he had long worn the form of a giant, shadowy steed, he was more a living hole. His ways were not always the ways of other living creatures, if living was a term that could be applied to what he was.
In truth, it was not only what he was that had made him a thing somewhat repulsive to the enchantress, but also the company he had kept. Darkhorse had been a companion to Shade, the warlock whose quest for immortality and power had made him a force swinging from light to darkness with each new incarnation. Only Darkhorse—and perhaps Cabe and Queen Erini, who had come to know the faceless warlock best toward the end—mourned Shade.
Gwen had finally reconciled with Darkhorse, in great part because of his friendship with Cabe. “If you could find him, I would feel much better about this, but that raises the point. How do you hope to find him quickly? He could be anywhere and you yourself said that you really only had this one day, a day we’ve already used part of. He could be anywhere, even beyond the Dragonrealm, you know.”
The dark-haired warlock exhaled. “Other than us, there’s only one person he ever truly visits.”
“Erini. I’ll visit her and ask if she’s seen him or has news of him. I only wish I’d thought of it when we were there last.”
The enchantress released him and came to his side. She joined him in watching some of the drake and human workers carry a pair of long benches into the depths of the garden. The Bedlams had encouraged their people to make use of the sculpted land, providing they were careful about maintaining it. The population of their tiny domain had grown, however, and so it had become necessary to make some additions and changes to the gardens.
“Melicard may not be too pleased to see you back so soon. I’ve often wondered whether he still blames us in part for his father.”
“Blames me, you mean. Kyrg and Toma were hunting for me when Kyrg brought his army to the gates of Talak.” Cabe frowned, recalling the young prince he had first met. At the time, he had shared much in common with Melicard. Both of them had been unseasoned, naive, when they had been thrust into the center of things. It had cost Melicard his father, but at the same time it had cost Cabe more. He had lost not only the elf who had raised him and had been more of a father to him than Azran ever could have, but also, albeit only in spirit, his grandfather. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter what the truth is in this case. Melicard is Melicard. We have to live with that and I’ve got to put up with that when I arrive there.”
“Then you had best depart now.”
Cabe realized that he had been hesitating, that he could have left minutes before but had talked on. He leaned forward and kissed his wife. It was a kiss that spoke too much of the fact that while they would likely see each other again before he departed for Legar itself, it would only be for a very, very short time.
“Good-bye,” he whispered . . . and disappeared.
UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES, Cabe would have materialized in one of the greeting areas where dignitaries from other kingdoms awaited an audience with Melicard. Times were not normal, however, and so the warlock chose to instead appear in the most likely chamber where he might find the queen. He hoped to locate her and find out what information he could, then leave before Melicard discovered his presence. It would be easier that way.
Erini took her lessons and tested her magical skills in what had once been an auxiliary training room for the palace guard. Much to his misfortune, though, she was not there this day. Cabe had hoped she had been practicing. It was the right time of day, but he knew that Erini occasionally altered her schedule. Scratching his chin, he contemplated his next move. There were perhaps two or three other places he might find the queen alone, no more. Other than those locations, he stood a good chance of confronting the king, too.
She was not in the riding range nor was she in the next location he visited, the private rooms of Princess Lynnette, only child of the king and queen. Standing among the elegant but fanciful pictures of woodland creatures that decorated the princess’s chambers, Cabe quietly swore; he did not have time to go running about searching for Queen Erini. Time was short enough. There was still the monumental task of locating Darkhorse.
He recalled then another place. There was a possibility that the king might also be there, but it was less likely than his remaining choices. He teleported.
She was sitting in a chair, a tiny globe of light shining above her head, when Cabe manifested not more than an arm’s length before her. Queen Erini dropped the book she had been reading and gasped, but she was quick-witted enough to recognize the warlock and thereby stifle the scream that would have surely followed.
“Cabe! By Rheena! You know that you are always welcome in my presence, but certainly this is rather extreme!”
Queen Erini of Talak did not much resemble the image of a sorceress or a witch as most in the Dragonrealm thought of the type. She seemed, in fact, more the perfect storybook princess. Slim and delicate in appearance, with long tresses the color of summer accenting her oval face, Erini looked hardly out of her teens even though she was long past that time. Her pale features were without flaw. Unlike the day of her last lesson, she was now clad in a more sensible and less formal silver and red dress, one that a person could actually walk around and sit down in. It still had its share of jewels sewn into it and the typical puffed sleeves of royal garments, but otherwise it was actually rather plain. He suspected it was probably her favorite dress for that very reason. When last he had seen her, she had been wearing an elaborate gown of gold, an affectation of her former homeland, Gordag-Ai. It had completed the image of a young queen who should have been more at home doing embroidery in the company of her ladies-in-waiting than attempting to perform a magical spell of moderate complexity. Yet while it was true that Erini was fond of embroidery, she was also a woman who had let it be known long ago that she would be more than a showpiece for her husband, King Melicard I. She was a person who followed her own mind in all things, although she did respect the opinions and thoughts of others, especially her husband.
The king, to the surprise of many in those first years, had argued little. He loved his wife for what she was, not what she represented.
Cabe Bedlam quickly knelt before her. It was likely not necessary, for Erini considered both spellcasters her social equals, but it made Cabe feel better for the shock he had given her. “Forgive me, Queen Erini! I searched for you in the most obvious places and then recalled your fondness for the royal library.” The bluerobed warlock glanced around at the impressive array of tomes that had been collected in the oak-paneled room. Other than Penacles, the City of Knowledge, Talak boasted one of the finest collections of writing in the Dragonrealm. The books were, for the most part, copies, however. Melicard had sent scribes throughout the continent on quests to obtain access to whatever bits of writing they could find. At Erini’s urging, he was now also having some of the copies copied so that others could share in what his people had discovered. “I’ve come on urgent business so my arrival was a bit more abrupt than I would’ve wished. I hope that you will overlook my transgression.”
“Only if you take a chair and cease to be so formal, Master Bedlam.” She indicated one of the half-dozen elegant and padded chairs situated in the carpeted room. A slight smile played at her lips. “And you need not fear my husband’s presence. He is engaged in some proper time with his daughter, someone he sees too little of considering the great love he bears for her.”
“My thanks, Que—Erini.” Although Cabe’s body was tense with anxiety, he forced himself to sit across from the queen.
The warlock waited until she had picked up her book and put it on the tiny table beside her. The ball of light, which had bobbled about during her initial fright, remained situated above her head. Cabe nodded at the magical lamp. “I see you’ve been practicing. It’s very steady.”
“I only wish I’d practiced years ago. To think of the time I’ve wasted!”
He shook his head. “I wish you’d quit thinking that. Erini, if there’s one thing I know, you’ve not wasted time. You have a husband and a beautiful young daughter. You’ve made Melicard a king more accessible to the people’s needs.” Cabe waved a hand at the rows of neatly arranged books. “You’ve encouraged learning to read. The only access I ever had to reading was what Hadeen the elf owned. In fact, the only reason I ever learned to read was because of him. Now, you threaten to make Talak second only to Penacles in the education of its subjects.” He folded his arms. “I could give more examples, but that should be sufficient.”
“I threaten to make Talak second to none, actually,” the slim monarch replied. The smile had not only returned, but it had spread. “You are correct, Cabe, but I still cannot help feeling angry at myself for all those years I left my power to languish.”
“You’d seen too much death and destruction. It wasn’t what you were raised for.”
“Neither were you.”
Cabe shook his head. “I am Nathan Bedlam’s grandson and the birth child of Azran. If I wasn’t raised to be in the midst of trouble, I don’t know who is. Somehow, trouble generally finds me . . . which brings me back to why I’m here.” The warlock leaned forward, his voice quiet. “I’d hoped to find Darkhorse here. I can detect traces of his presence, but nothing strong enough to tell me if he is near or where he might have gone. I need his aid, if he’s willing to give it, on a journey into the midst of the Legar Peninsula.”
“You are talking about the Crystal Dragon’s domain!”
“I am. This is no ordinary trek, either. If it were, I might be willing to travel alone. Under normal circumstances, the Crystal Dragon would ignore me unless I tried to invade his caverns.”
Erini’s gaze was steady. “And now?”
“And now, there may be an army camped in the very midst of his kingdom. An army under the banner of the wolf.”
“The Aramites? The rumors are true?” She paled slightly. “I think that perhaps Melicard should be here. Commander Iston, too.” Iston, a native of Erini’s homeland, had, for the past several years, been Talak’s chief intelligence gatherer.
“Please!” Cabe almost jumped from his chair. “Not until I’m gone. Then you can tell him everything. The important thing is that I need to discover just exactly what is happening. That’s why I was hoping to find Darkhorse.”
“And if you don’t find him?”
“Then I’ll go there alone.”
Her left hand tightened into a fist and her voice grew deathly quiet. “Gwendolyn would never accept that.”
“She won’t know until it’s too late. I’ll make certain of that if I have to, Erini. I won’t have her coming after me.”
It was clear that she did not agree with him, but she finally nodded. “As you wish, Cabe. This means that I must help you find Darkhorse no matter what. I would never be able to face Gwen if something happened to you because I failed to locate him for you.”
“She’d never hold you responsible.”
“No, but I would.” The queen rose, smoothed her dress with her hands, and stared off into space, her perfect features twisting into an expression of intense concentration. “He’s not been here of late and I’ve not been expecting him. Therein lies our greatest problem. There are two places that we generally meet, though. One lies within the palace and the other far beyond Talak’s high walls.”
“Outside?” The notion that Melicard would allow Erini to wander beyond the safety of the city rather surprised the warlock.
“If you think that your relationship with my husband has its tentative moments, you should ask Darkhorse about his own experiences. The only thing that truly holds them together is me, Cabe. Melicard is grateful for what the shadow steed did for me when Mal Quorin, my husband’s traitorous counselor, sought to take Talak for his master, the Silver Dragon. Darkhorse knows that I love Melicard. Both of them, however, remember the circumstances under which they met, when my husband-to-be had poor Drayfitt snare and imprison the eternal and even torture him in his quest to make Darkhorse his servant.”
Cabe shivered. He recalled that. Darkhorse was not a forgiving sort, either, not that anyone could blame him.
“Sometimes, especially when I am around, they are very cordial, almost friendly, but their mutual past always returns. That’s why there are times when it is better to visit Darkhorse in a place far from the eyes of my husband. I love my husband but I will not abandon my friends . . . as you know.”
“I do.” Rising, the blue-robed spellcaster readied himself for what was to come. “Where’s the first location? The one in the palace.”
“My private rooms.” She took his hand. “Please. Allow me.”
Even as the queen finished speaking, the scene around them shifted. They now stood in the midst of a vast, elegant suite of the like that made Cabe stare in open awe. Huge columns stood in each corner of the chamber, the white marble decorated with golden flowers so lifelike he at first thought them real. The floor was also marble, but of different colors arranged in a beautiful abstract pattern. Long, thick fur rugs ran from the massive wooden bed to each of the four doorways. Where there were no doors, gay tapestries decorated the walls. A row of closets spoke of the volumes of clothing royalty wore, as did the wide mirror to the side of the closets.
The bed and the rest of the wooden furniture in the suite had all been carved from the now-rare northern oak. The wood had not been so rare at the time of their creation, but the winter of the Ice Dragon had created enough damage that the oaks had still not yet recovered. Despite the magic that had been used to reverse the effects of the magical winter, the most northern places had still suffered much too much.
As impressive as his surroundings were, they paled in comparison to what the queen had just done. “You did that without flaw, Erini! I waited, thinking I’d probably have to help you along, but you brought us here as if you’d been practicing for years.”
“No, for some reason I find that spell easier to perform. It only took me three or four attempts to master the proper concentration for it. Why is that, do you think?”
Cabe shrugged. “Gwen is the one who usually has the answers. With me, magic came almost full-blown. That saved my life in the beginning, but it means I never really had the incentive to learn why spells work the way they do. Gwen’s taught me much since then, but that still doesn’t mean I understand completely.” He gave her a rueful smile. “Which is why for the fine points, my wife has been instructing you.”
“You have both been excellent teachers.”
“I muddle through.” The warlock again glanced around at the sumptuous apartment. “A room definitely fit for a queen, Erini.”
“It is exactly the way it was when I first arrived in Talak. Such a waste of a room,” the queen commented dryly. “Since I do not sleep here, the only use it usually gets is when I must be dressed for yet another interminable ball for some ambassador and the necessary gown is not among those in my closets in our royal suite. Still, there are times when it’s nice to be alone . . . and it gives Darkhorse and me a place to talk. The library is too cramped, too.”
“Then why do you need the other location? This seems private enough.”
“Darkhorse rarely talks below a roar, Cabe. You should know that.” Erini strolled around the room, visibly recalling memories. Cabe knew that this was where she had first stayed after her arrival in Talak. This apartment had been her refuge in the days when she had first struggled to be accepted by the disfigured king, whose torn mind had been further turned to the dark by his malicious counselor. He did not doubt that she kept it as it was rather than alter it to some other use simply because of those precious memories.
As loath as he was to interrupt her reverie, he knew he had to. The day was advancing quickly. “Your Majesty . . . Erini . . .”
“Yes, he is not here, of course.” Her memories put aside for now, the slim monarch pondered the matter at hand. “That only leaves the hills. I wish I could be more help to you. Can you not follow his trace?”
“Too old and too faint. It also crosses itself so many times, I couldn’t tell which way he went last. If he teleported, that makes it even closer to impossible.”
“And I thought magic made everything easy.”
“Sometimes it makes things more convoluted and frustrating, not to mention life-threatening. There’re times when I wish I was back in that tavern, still waiting on tables and getting threatened by half-drunk ogres. Dragon Kings, Seekers, Quel . . . I could do without all of them.”
“But not without the Lady Gwendolyn, I imagine.” The queen moved to the center of the room and reached out a hand to him.
“Makes everything else worthwhile.” Cabe took her hand and steadied himself, more comfortable now that he knew that Erini was adept at this spell.
“I hope you tell her that on occasion,” Erini responded even as their surroundings shifted from the planned elegance of civilization to the raw beauty of nature. She released his hand and stepped away from him in order to better survey the region. The hills were actually the beginning of the Tyber Mountains, but somewhere in the planning, they had been cheated of the great height of their brothers. While few folk ever cared to make the journey through the treacherous chain, the hills did garner some traffic of their own. There was good grazing land here, not to mention the only decent wood within a day’s ride of the city. Talak, for all it had, was forced to go to its more outward lands to fill its wood needs.
There were dangers here, of course, but generally only the ordinary ones such as wolves and the rare wyvern or minor drake. Since the death of the Dragon Emperor, Melicard’s vast forces had worked hard to clear every corner of the kingdom of the monsters and larger beasts that had once preyed on travelers. For the most part, they had been quite successful.
“I was afraid of this, Cabe. I doubted he would be here, but it was the only place left that I could bring you.”
He nodded, his smile one of resignation rather than pleasure. “I didn’t think it would be easy. I’ve got a few other ideas, but I was hoping that I’d find him with or near you.”
Erini was downcast, but then her face brightened. “I can help you search for him! The teleportation spell is my best. I should have thought of that before. It will cut your searching by nearly half!”
“No?” Her tone became frost. “Do you think to command me, Cabe?”
“In this instance, yes, Your Majesty. You are too important to Melicard, Talak, and, because of both, the rest of the Dragonrealm. If anything happened to you, what would the king do? Think on that before you answer me.”
She did. He watched as her face fell. Both of them were too familiar with Melicard’s moods. It was Erini who had changed him for the better, but those changes might slip away if she was injured or even . . .
Her eyes suddenly widened. “There’s . . . I think there might be one more place to search, Cabe. It’s a thin possibility, but it just might be . . .”
“I’ll have to take you there; it’s . . . it’s the only way to make certain we arrive at the proper location.”
The warlock caught the hesitation in her voice. “Where is it, Erini?”
“In the Northern Wastes.”
“I forbid you from coming! Tell me approximately where and I’ll go there my—”
Erini stalked up to Cabe and gave him her most royal glare. He hesitated just long enough for her to interject, “You can forbid me nothing this time, Cabe Bedlam! As frustrating as it is to me personally, I concede to you that it would be better for us if I did not risk myself! I love Melicard, but I agree that if I were injured or even came close to harm he might, in his unreasoning anger, do something that we would all regret! I have a very good reason, however, for needing to lead you to this one last location. The Northern Wastes are nearly half the size of the rest of the continent and far more troublesome to search. You could pass within yards of the area and not see Darkhorse standing before you. I can lead you to the exact spot; like him, I will never forget it.”
Her skin was pale and her body trembled. Queen Erini stared at Cabe in such a manner that he knew she would have actually preferred not to make this final trek. Only the importance of his mission compelled her to do so.
“What is this place, Erini?” he asked quietly. “And why would it have such a hold on both you and Darkhorse?”
“Because it is where the warlock Shade died.”
HE HAD NEVER been able to convince himself that the blur-faced warlock was dead. At the same time, he had never been able to convince himself that Shade was still alive.
So Darkhorse had searched the world and beyond for nearly a decade, always wondering if the human who had been both his friend and enemy was merely one step ahead of him, watching and waiting for the proper time to emerge. One part of the shadow steed hoped and prayed that the weary sorcerer was at last at peace. The other missed the good incarnations of the man, for only Shade had ever come close to understanding Darkhorse’s own emptiness.
Which was why, Erini told Cabe before they departed for the Wastes, he often stood for days at the site where the warlock had simply faded away after expending all his might in a last effort to make up for what he had become.
When they materialized in the midst of the freezing, windwracked tundra of the Northern Wastes, it was almost as if he had been waiting for them. The queen brought them to a point barely ten feet from where the huge ebony stallion was situated.
Darkhorse slowly turned his massive head toward them. His ice-blue eyes seemed to burn into the warlock’s very soul. The eternal’s voice was a thunderous rumble even despite the rather subdued tone. “Erini. Cabe. It’s good to see both of you. This is not a place for your kind, however.”
“We . . . we came in . . . in search of you, Darkhorse,” the queen managed.
Studying her, Cabe Bedlam grew worried. Erini was a competent sorceress, but it was possible that she had overextended herself. He had provided himself with a heavy cloak to offset the cold, but she had not done the same even though the need should have been obvious. The warlock quickly remedied the situation.
Erini gave him a weak smile. “Thank you.”
Darkhorse’s hooves kicked away snow and ice as he moved closer. At his present height, he was half again the size of a normal steed. Size, however, was irrelevant to a creature who could manipulate his form in ways no other shapeshifter could. Had he chosen, the ebony eternal could have become as small as a rabbit, even smaller. He need not have resembled a horse, either. Somewhere in the far, forgotten past, Darkhorse had hit upon the form and found it to his liking. The black stallion rarely shifted anymore, although occasionally his body would resemble more the shadow of a horse than the real animal. Cabe had decided that this last was an almost unconscious action. There were things that were normal for a human to do; the same likely could be said even for as unique an entity as the black leviathan before them.
“You should not be out here in the cold, Queen Erini!” roared Darkhorse. It was almost necessary to roar; the wind had picked up. A storm was building. It was hard for the warlock to believe that anything could live in the Northern Wastes, but many creatures did. “We should return to Talak! It will be much more cozy there . . . at least for you two!” The demonic steed chuckled.
“I—” was as far as Erini got. Suddenly she was falling toward Cabe. He caught her at the last moment and stumbled back under her sudden weight. Darkhorse’s eyes glittered. He trotted a few more steps toward them.
“What ails her?”
Cabe adjusted his grip. “She pushed herself too far! She insisted that she be the one to bring us here and like a fool I agreed!”
Darkhorse snorted. “I doubt you had much choice with her! Best take her back to her chambers quick!”
“The private ones where you two sometimes meet?”
“You know them? Good! Take her there! I shall follow! Perhaps, if we are fortunate, good Melicard will be out running down drakes or some such foolishness! Hurry now!”
Tightening his hold, the warlock teleported—
—and found himself face-to-face with King Melicard, who stood within the suite, one hand on the door handle. Another moment and it was likely they would have missed one another, for he was turned as if just planning to depart.
There were still those to whom the lord of Talak was an effrontery or even a thing of horror. Melicard no longer cared what those people thought. Erini and Princess Lynnette were the only two whose opinions mattered to him and they, of course, loved him dearly.
Despite the yoke of leadership he had worn for almost two decades, Melicard at first glance still looked very much like the handsome young prince that Cabe, with his own rather ordinary features, had always secretly envied. Tall and athletic with brownish hair just now turning a bit to gray, he had once been the desire of many a woman, both royal and common. If Erini was the storybook princess, then Melicard, with his strong, angular features and commanding presence, was the hero of the tale.
He was still handsome . . . but now more than half of his face was a magical reconstruction. The left side from above the eye down to the lower jaw was completely silver in color, for that was the natural shade of elfwood. Much of the nose was the same and there were even streaks of silver stretching across to the right side, almost like a pattern of roots seizing hold of what little good flesh remained of the king’s visage.
Magic had stolen most of his face and because of that, the damage had proved impossible to repair. Only elfwood, carved into a reproduction of his very features, could give King Melicard the illusion of normalcy. The wondrous wood, blessed, so legend said, by the spirit of a dying forest elf, was capable of mimicking the movements of true flesh. The more the wearer believed in it, the better it pretended. It could never replace what had been lost, but for Melicard the choice had been the mask or the monster beneath. For the sake of his own sanity and the princess he was to marry, Melicard had chosen the former.
He was clad in a black riding outfit that covered him from neck to foot, including his hands. Melicard generally wore outfits with long sleeves and always used gloves, but not for reasons of fashion. The ravaging forces that had taken much of his face had also taken from him his left arm. Had he removed his gloves, Cabe knew that the king’s hand would also be silver. The king could not so easily disguise his features, but he could at least hide his arm.
“Warlock! What are you—” His eyes, both real and not, focused on his beloved queen. “Erini!”
“She’ll be all right, Your Majesty,” Cabe quickly said. “Just help me carry her to the bed, if you please.”
Melicard was already moving. The two of them helped Erini walk to the bed; the novice sorceress was not actually unconscious, but seemed lost to the world around her.
When they had her lying down comfortably, Melicard hastened to the door and flung it open. Cabe, glancing up, saw two very nervous guards come to attention.
“Get Magda!” the disfigured monarch roared. “Get Galea! Get someone for the queen! She’s been hurt! Now!” He did not wait for them to respond, but rather turned immediately back to the bed, slamming the heavy door shut behind him as he did.
Cabe immediately stood up and faced him. He could not allow Melicard’s anger any leverage. He had to meet the king man-to-man and make him listen.
It was at that time that Darkhorse made the unfortunate decision to materialize. Melicard fell back from the newcomer, but Darkhorse did not notice him at first. “Does she fare better? How—” The pupilless eyes froze when they fell upon the furious king, who stood against one side as if the shadow steed filled the entire room. “Melicard . . .”
“I should have known you would be involved, demon! You may be virtually indestructible, but my queen is not! My Erini—”
“Is to blame for her troubles, my love.”
The three turned to the bed, where a still pale Erini was forcing herself up to a sitting position. She succeeded only as far as leaning on one elbow. Lines of strain marred her beauty.
“Erini!” Melicard, forgetting any pretense of dignity, ran to the side of the bed and hugged the queen.
“Gently, dear Melicard,” she gasped. “I’m not yet fully recovered.”
“Praise be!” Darkhorse bellowed. “You had us all fearful, dear Erini! You must take greater care in the future!”
“Greater care . . .” The king turned to face the warlock and the steed. “What did you make her do?”
“They . . . they did nothing, Melicard. I overextended myself. Cabe would have performed the spell, but I did not think he would find Darkhorse. I knew exactly where he would be if he was anywhere in . . . in that region.”
“Where were you?” He touched her skin. “You’re cold, Erini; I should have noticed that sooner . . . you’ve been to the Wastes, haven’t you?”
It was clear it was a strain for her to keep speaking, but the queen was not one to let others take the blame when she considered herself at fault. Cabe felt guilty that he allowed her to continue, but if anyone could make the ruler of Talak see reason, it was Erini.
“Listen to me, my love. I have to tell you everything the first time. I do not have the strength to repeat myself. Do you understand?”
Much of Melicard’s anger dwindled away as he realized what effect his fury was having on her. Still holding her, he sat down on the bed. “Very well; I’m listening, my queen.”
They were interrupted by a knock on the door. An older, plump woman, one of Erini’s two longtime companions from her former homeland, peered inside anxiously. “Your Majesties . . .”
Erini steadied herself. “Please wait without until I call for you, Galea. It will be but a moment.”
It was not to the woman’s liking, but she nodded and withdrew. The queen’s ladies were very protective of their charge, especially Galea and Magda.
“Now,” began the queen. “Let me tell you what happened, my beloved.”
She told him everything, glancing at the warlock for understanding. Cabe nodded; he agreed that there was no longer any reason to keep the purpose of his mission a secret. Melicard deserved the explanation even if, to the warlock, it might complicate something already too complicated. The king’s face was a mask in more ways than one now. Neither the real nor the elfwood side betrayed any emotion. Melicard was simply absorbing the facts. Afterward, when he had had a chance to consider what she had relayed to him, he might again become the living fury he had been a moment ago. The warlock hoped not, but there was no predicting Melicard. He would have to wait and see.
Erini was forced to pause several times in order to regain her strength, but at last she finished. More drained than before, the exhausted queen fell back onto the bed. Melicard rose to call her ladies in, but she reached up, put her hand on his, and said, “Not just yet, my lord. Let us finish here first. I’m only tired; nothing more. I promise you.”
“You’re certain, Erini?”
“I would never let anything happen to her, Your Majesty,” Cabe added. “My power stands ready to aid her if necessary. She’s overtaxed herself like she said. It can happen . . . I know that too well . . . when a fairly new mage succeeds too quickly with some spell. I apologize, however, for letting her go as far as she did. That was my mistake.”
“Erini has a stubbornness worthy of me!” commented Darkhorse. He was more his old self now. Cabe was thankful for that; if his old friend agreed to join him, he would need Darkhorse at his best. Distracted, he could become more of a danger, for Cabe would then himself be distracted from his course. “When she chooses to do something, she does it! One might as well ask the Tybers to move aside for them rather than convince the queen to change her mind on certain subjects!”
“I am . . .” the king began, “very much aware of my wife’s qualities. Foremost of those is a tendency to be open and straightforward with the truth. That and her beauty were what struck me that first day we met as adults.” He turned to face the two. His expression was calm, but his tone was just slightly cold. “I take what she says now as the true and complete story . . . as she knows it. You have my apologies, Master Bedlam, for my accusing you of being responsible for her condition.”
“There’s no need to apologize, Your Majesty. Under the circumstances, you reacted as anyone might have.”
“Indeed.” King Melicard rose. “And now that you’ve found what you were searching for, Master Bedlam, I am sure that you must be on your way. This news of Legar and the wolf raiders I will pass on to Iston. I will respect your mission. We will do nothing for now except watch. When you’ve discovered what you can, I would appreciate being told.”
They were being asked to leave and leave now. Melicard’s words teetered on the edge of bluntness, but at the same time he was sounding civil. It was all that could have been expected from him at a time like this. Cabe was more than ready to depart. As the king had almost said, he had found who he had been searching for. Thank the stars Darkhorse didn’t take him to task for that slight!
“I was glad . . . glad to be what help I could, Cabe,” whispered Erini from the bed. She managed to lean up a bit. “Good luck.”
“And where do we go from here, Cabe?” asked Darkhorse. There seemed no question in his mind that he would follow the sorcerer to the inhospitable peninsula. Darkhorse was very loyal to those he considered his friends.
“Thank you, Erini, and you, too, Darkhorse. First to the Manor, I suppose, to let Gwen know I’ve found you. Then, I think on to Zuu.”
Much to Cabe’s surprise, it was Melicard who answered the demon steed for him. “Zuu would be appropriate. There is no human city closer to the domain of the Crystal Dragon. They may have some word there that has not reached us yet.” He hesitated, then added, “Good luck, Master Bedlam.”
The warlock bowed. “Thank you, Your Majesty. It may be that this will be simple and swift. The danger may be limited. There is something going on there, though, and for reasons I don’t understand, I seem to have been included.”
“Have no fear now, Cabe!” Darkhorse roared. “With me at your side, it is our foes who must worry!”
The demon steed’s brash confidence, while not enough to change Cabe’s own dour opinion on the matter, still succeeded in bringing a smile to his face. It was hard not to be at least a bit more hopeful when he was with Darkhorse.
“Give Gwen my love,” Erini added from the bed.
“I will.” He looked at his unearthly companion. “Are you ready?”
“I was ready long ago, Cabe! I look forward to this adventure with great anticipation!”
The warlock concentrated. “I’m glad someone is.”
Darkhorse was still laughing when they vanished.
AT THE SOUTHEASTERN edge of the land of Irillian, a longboat from the lone black ship slowly made its way toward shore. The black ship had waited until just the right time to come close enough to deposit its cargo. There were those who would have gladly sunk the vessel without so much as a question or a warning. Its mere presence, even in the distance, would have sealed its fate no matter who had been aboard.
There were three aboard the longboat, all of whom wore heavy cloaks designed not only to protect them from the spray and rain, but also, if need be, to protect their identities. Only one rowed; the other two sat and watched, wary.
They did not beach the longboat. Instead, when they were near enough, the two passengers climbed out into waist-deep water and waded their way toward shore. The third figure slowly began to turn the boat around so that he could return to the other vessel.
Both passengers moved swiftly through the sea. Their reactions were those of folk who little loved the water and suffered it now only because it was necessary. When they were at last on the beach, the duo shook themselves off, the wild wind and their cloaks making them look like the specters of dead seamen rising from the depths. They then turned and briefly watched their companion row back to the dark hunter. Satisfied that the ship would depart undetected, the two quietly conferred and then started inland, the taller one leading the way.
The journey ahead would be long and tiring, but they were undeterred by that thought. All that concerned them was the reason that had brought them to this shore in the first place. They were hunters, both of them, and they had come to the Dragonrealm because that was where their prey was. Whether it took ten days or ten years, they would complete their quest, for with them it had also become an obsession. Either they succeeded or they died. Living with failure did not occur to them; it was not their way. Either their prey was vanquished or they were killed in the attempt. Those were the only choices.
At the top of a rise overlooking the cloud-enshrouded, rolling landscape of southern Irillian, the lead figure stopped. He motioned to the other, then pointed to the far southwest in a direction that would take them on a route north of the distant city of Penacles. His companion nodded, but said nothing. They had discussed the route in advance. They knew their destination and how long it would likely take to reach it. All that mattered now was getting there without being discovered, a difficult task, but not an impossible one for two with their skills.
Confident and determined, they began both the climb down the other side of the rise . . . and the final leg of their journey to the Dagora Forest.
“I STILL DO not see why we cannot just teleport to where you want to search in Legar and then leap back!” Darkhorse grumbled. In order to converse with Cabe, who rode on his back, he had twisted his head around in a manner that would have broken the neck of any true steed. Fortunately, it was dark now and they were some distance from the actual city, having materialized so far away for safety’s sake. Mages were still a rare and gossip-stirring sight. The warlock wanted no interference with his mission.
Cabe sighed and adjusted the hood of the traveler’s cloak he wore. The hood was the only way he could properly hide the great stretch of silver in his hair. Dyes merely washed away before they even had time to set. It was said that a god had created the mark as a symbol of his respect for the legendary Lord Drazeree, who had borne a similar streak, but if so, Cabe thought that the least the unthinking deity could have done was allow for times when a spellcaster had to hide his nature. Mages were always forced to resort to hats, cloaks, helms, and rather touchy illusion spells to obscure the silver. There were times when that made their lives tricky.
“You weren’t there when the Green Dragon was struck down, Darkhorse. I don’t want to go blindly into Legar. We need to move with stealth. I also want to see if I can find out any information beforehand. It’s possible that not all news has made it back to Talak yet.”
“You should have asked Melicard to give you the names of his spies! We could ask them and be done with it!”
“I’m sure that would’ve pleased the king. Now, for the last time, you’d better start behaving like a real horse. I’d like to avoid too much notice; it’s possible that the wolf raiders, if they are in Legar, might also have spies in Zuu.”
The shadow steed snorted and turned his head to a more savory position. Cabe relaxed a little. For a creature who had lived for thousands of years, the eternal could be very impatient at times. Tonight, he was even more restless than was normal. The warlock was certain that Darkhorse’s anxiety focused around Shade. Darkhorse had done little in the past few years besides search for traces of the ageless sorcerer.
They would have to talk about this some time in the future. Whether Shade was truly dead or not, Darkhorse could not spend eternity thinking about it. He had to be made to see that there were other matters—and friends—waiting for him.
“There is the city,” whispered Darkhorse. Unfortunately, his concept of whispering still resembled more of a shout.
“I see,” Cabe responded quickly. “We’ll have to be doubly careful. We may encounter other riders at any moment.”
His ploy worked. The demon steed nodded and resumed his role of faithful horse.
To the eyes of another traveler, one who carried a good torch, that is, the two would resemble a weary rider and his large ebony stallion. Darkhorse had shrunk down to a more tolerable size, although he was still large for most breeds. Cabe, meanwhile, was clad in a simple gray outfit consisting of pants, cloth shirt, knee-high leather boots, and the aforementioned riding cloak. While his outfit was a bit old-fashioned, it was not an uncommon sight. The style was a throwback to his life near the now ruined city-state of Mito Pica, which had been destroyed by the Dragon Emperor’s forces for having unknowingly secreted a young Cabe Bedlam. Many survivors had become wanderers since then, even almost two decades after the event. Hence, the warlock would look like one of the youngest ones finally grown up. Most people respected the privacy of such wanderers, especially the people of Zuu.
Cabe had never journeyed to the low, sprawling city of Zuu, possibly, he now admitted to himself, out of some small guilt. During the brief war that had been instigated by the Dragon Kings’ search for him, the rather independent-minded folk of Zuu had sent a contingent of their famous horse soldiers to the aid of Penacles. The young warlock vividly recalled the band of huge blond warriors clad in leather and how they had wanted to come to his aid when airdrakes had flown down and attacked Cabe and Gwen. He especially remembered their leader, a scarred man named Blane, the second or third son of the king at that time.
Blane had died defending Penacles, but not before he had killed Duke Kyrg, the drake commander and brother to Toma. It was no surprise that Talak and Zuu were on excellent political terms with each other, not that such prevented each from having their share of spies.
Blane’s brother, someone named Lanith XII, was now king, but Cabe had no intention of introducing himself to the man. If things went according to plan, he wanted to be out of the city before morning. That meant little or no sleep, but to a spellcaster of his ability, one night missed meant nothing. For the past several years, he had enjoyed a full night’s slumber all but a handful of days. In truth, Cabe did not miss the sleep so much as the peace and quiet.
He gently prodded Darkhorse’s sides, the signal for speed. There would be no peace and quiet tonight nor likely the next.
Zuu lay in a valley that was vaguely bowl-shaped. Around it were miles and miles of grassland. The nomadic founders of the city had chosen this location for the latter feature. Horses had been and still were the most valuable possession of any citizen of Zuu. Merchants from all over the continent came to this region to purchase the best animals.
Because of their obsession with their horses, it was not so surprising to Cabe that even in the dark Zuu resembled one endless array of stables. With few exceptions, no building generally topped more than two floors. Most of the structures had a boxy appearance that was evident even from where the warlock was. Adding to the effect was the one drawback to having business in the city: Zuu also smelled like one vast stable.
Cabe had wanted to avoid spells, for they had a way of drawing the attention of other mages, but he could already see that the odor was going to become more pungent with each successive step nearer. With a single thought, he adjusted his sense of smell. He did not go so far as to make the odor pleasant, but he made it less noticeable. That required less manipulation. Cabe disliked using sorcery to alter his form. It was there that a mage could cause himself irreparable harm; his concentration might waver just enough that his spell would go awry. There were legends of spellcasters who had died like that. Too often, the ease with which some learned magic made them too careless.
It was not long before they approached the city gates. Up close, Zuu was a well-lit city, a sign of its prosperity in the horse trade. Behind the walls, Cabe could make out some of the nearer structures. Zuu did not have high walls to protect it; the people relied on their own skills. There were few forces, either drake or human, who willingly went against the horsemen of Zuu. Not only were they expert riders, but they could fire arrows or throw spears with amazing accuracy even when their horses were at full gallop. More important, it was not just the men an enemy had to be wary of. Under Zuu law, every adult, male or female, was a fighter. There were many women in this city who could have stood among the finest warriors in the land. Even the children could be dangerous should a battle somehow reach behind the walls. The citizens of Zuu were of the opinion that it was never too early to teach a child how to defend his own.
It was something to consider, especially since six of those horsemen were now waiting for him at the gate.
They were typical of what Cabe had known. Tall, blond, and looking as if they had been riding since birth. Most of them were wearing leather pants and jerkins, the latter not entirely succeeding in covering their bronzed chests. They wore short helms with nose protectors, but otherwise no armor. Not all the inhabitants of Zuu resembled the nomadic image, but the city guards most certainly did. Many of them were likely the latest in a long family line of city guards. People here tended to follow in their parents’ footsteps . . . or maybe horsetracks.
The evident leader, a somewhat heavier man with a blond and gray beard, urged his horse toward Cabe. He was followed a few steps behind by another rider who carried a torch. The other guards had their bows ready. The warlock wondered if he could teleport away fast enough if he somehow offended them. The archers of Zuu were not only accurate; they were swift.
“Welcome, stranger! What do you have to declare, eh?”
There had been the temptation to simply materialize in the midst of the city and forgo meeting the city guards, but despite its reputation for respecting the privacy of its visitors, Zuu paradoxically also liked to keep track of everyone. Had he given in to the temptation, Cabe soon might have found himself the object of several curious and suspicious soldiers. No, passing through the front gates like a normal traveler would much better aid him in the long run.
“Only myself and my steed. A few supplies for travel, but nothing else.”
The guard leader was eyeing him up and down. “You’ve never been to Zuu, have you, man?”
Had he done something wrong? “No.”
“Hilfa.” At the summons, a sentry from the back of the group rode forward. A woman. She was perhaps a year or two younger than the warlock looked, tall, and just as capable-looking if not more so than some of her companions. Modesty, Cabe saw, was not a strong point of the folk here. Hilfa wore the same outfit as her companions, which made for some distraction above the waist. She seemed unconcerned about his slight embarrassment. How foreigners acted was only a concern if they broke the law.
When she was even with the guard captain, Hilfa waggled the bow in her hand, a salute of sorts to her superior.
“Give him a marker.”
Reaching into a saddlebag, the woman quickly produced a small, U-shaped talisman on a chain. This she tossed to the waiting spellcaster without preamble. Cabe had to move with swiftness to catch the marker before it fell past him.
The leader pointed at the talisman. “That’s your marker. Carry it with you at all times, either around your neck or in your pocket, but carry it, man. When you buy somethin’ or talk to anyone from our city, produce it.”
Cabe inspected it. There was a touch of magic to it, but so little it could not be meant to harm him. Unwilling to remove his hood, he thrust the marker into a belt pouch. Zuu evidently had one or more mages who worked for them. An interesting aspect he would remember for the future. How many more were there and what were they doing?
“Let him pass.”
Hilfa backed her horse up, allowing the sorcerer access. As Cabe rode by, however, she reached out and put a hand on his. He looked at her. Up close, she had strong features, but not unattractive ones. Like many of the inhabitants, Hilfa looked like she was related to her companions. “That’s a remarkable animal you have there. I’ve not seen one like that anywhere. What breed is it?”
“It’s unique. A mix.” Cabe had considered this problem. Folk as interested in horse breeding as these would not let a steed like Darkhorse pass through their city without some questions. Mixes were not considered as valuable as purebreds, however, so he had hoped that by calling the eternal a mix, he would be able to dampen some of that interest.
That was not the case. In the end, a good horse was a good horse to some. “Would you consider selling it?”
“I don’t think he’d let me. Sorry.”
She removed her hand, somewhat puzzled by his response. The gates had opened while the two of them had talked, so Cabe quickly took advantage of her silence and urged Darkhorse forward.
This was the entrance through which most of the foreign visitors first passed and so Cabe found himself entering a bustling market still filled despite the night. Merchants from both Zuu and beyond had set up their tents along his path. Travelers from all the continent over, even far Irillian, wandered about admiring and often buying things they did not necessarily need. The two men from the seaport of Irillian, recognizable in their sailor-style shirts and wide, blue pants, were discussing the need for a pair of small daggers with silver handles. A merchant family wearing the bulky, elaborate garments of Gordag-Ai was sitting at a row of benches eating freshly purchased meat pies. Cabe wondered what sort of meat might be in it. He was discovering that he was now hungry enough to eat almost anything, even horse.
Soon he would eat. He had forced himself not to so that he might be able to order meals at more than one inn. From his early days, when he had been but a simple steward at the Wyvern’s Head Tavern, the warlock knew that one of the best places to overhear the local rumors was a tavern or inn. Good company, food, and plenty of drink could loosen a man’s tongue just as quickly as a mage’s spell.
There were sure to be many such places and Cabe was prepared to visit most of them, but he wanted to find one frequented just as much by the citizenry as it was by strangers. It was more likely he would hear news from a home source than from a stranger, but he did not want to rule out the latter hope.
Finding a stable would be easier, he soon discovered. They were everywhere. Compared to even the royal stables of Penacles or Talak, these were also the cleanest. The dark-haired spellcaster finally chose one near an inn entitled Belfour’s Champion. From the image painted on the sign, he gathered that the name had something to do with an actual horse once prominent with this quarter of the city.
At the stable he showed the marker to a groom, who led them to a private stall after an exchange of money. On the pretext that he desired to personally take care of his own mount, Cabe succeeded in being alone with Darkhorse.
“I like this place,” the shadow steed rumbled. “They know how best to treat an animal. I should visit Zuu again in the near future!”
“They won’t treat you so well if they find out it’s you scaring all their other horses.”
What Cabe had said was true. Around them, the other mounts were stirring, the voice of Darkhorse unnerving them. The shadowy stallion tried to speak quieter. “I wish I could enter with you, friend Cabe.”
“That would certainly raise a few eyebrows and shut more than a few mouths. I don’t think even the locals treat their horses that well anymore. You’d best stay here for the time being. It won’t be a loss, either. This close, you should be able to pick up a number of the voices outside. You’ll also have people coming and going here, too.”
Darkhorse scraped the floor of his stall, gouging out a valley in the rock-hard dirt. He was not pleased with his end of the mission, but he understood that there was no way he could blend among people. Given time—more than they had now—the eternal might be able to copy the basic structure of a human, but he would not be able to copy their ways. A human-looking Darkhorse would still garner too much attention; despite the centuries among men, the demon steed had a rather unique thought pattern and personality. He did not and could not act like a mortal. Neither, for that matter, would he have been able to pass for an elf or any of the other races.
There was and there would always be only one Darkhorse.
The inn was surprisingly clean compared to many that Cabe had experienced. His sense of smell, despite having been dulled, was still able enough to pick up the delicious odors coming from the back. The warlock’s stomach grumbled, hoping to remind him that while he had a mission here, so did it.
The interior of Belfour’s Champion had much in common with many inns, of course, save that here there was no escaping the symbol of the place, the horse for which it had been named. There were small statuettes, trophies won by the selfsame steed, lining one wall. Tapestries revealing the various feats of a chestnut goliath covered most of the others. If even half of them were true, the animal had been a wonder.
Perhaps the most unusual bit of decor was the clean, polished skull that hung above the rock fireplace across from him. From the small wreath below it, he gathered that this had once belonged to the famous horse. It was, to the warlock, a peculiar way to honor even a most favored companion, but this was Zuu, after all, and it was Cabe who was the foreigner here.
Cabe found an empty bench off to one side of the eating area and sat down. Almost the second he was comfortable, a sun-haired serving girl was at his table. Unlike the guards, she was dressed in a more conventional outfit. Yet while the skirt and bodice were of a style that might have been found in any tavern across the Dragonrealm, the form barely hidden within was not. Cabe was of the opinion that there must be much to be said for the Zuu way of life; both the men and the women seemed remarkably fit.
“What can I get you?” she asked after he had revealed the marker. She had slightly elfin features, but with what could only be described as a saucy touch to them. The warlock was uncomfortably reminded of a serving girl named Deidra who had been all but able to wrap him around her finger when they had worked together in the Wyvern’s Head.
“What’s best? Food, I mean.”
“That’d be the stew.”
Cabe’s stomach rumbled again. “That’s fine. Stew and cider.”
She vanished in a swirl of skirts, leaving Cabe to recover. He loved Gwen, but a man had to be blind not to notice some women, just as he was certain it worked the other way.
There were a number of other travelers in the place, not to mention three good-sized parties of native Zuuans or Zuuites or whatever they called themselves. A few scattered individuals here and there verified that Cabe would not stick out. He picked out the loudest conversation, that of a trio of horse merchants, and started to listen.
His meal and drink came a couple of minutes later, by which time he was more than ready to abandon his first attempt. The serving girl dropped a heaping bowl of delicious-smelling stew in front of him along with a chunk of brown bread. As she reached over and put down the mug of cider, she hesitated long enough for him to admire the view if he desired. Cabe, who was familiar with the ways of some taverns and inns, gave her a noncommittal thank you and enough coins to satisfy both the bill and her. Once she had disappeared back into the crowd, he started in on the stew while at the same time choosing his next target.
The stew was superb, which made concentrating a bit harder at first, but he soon picked up on one of the other conversations. This one, between a pair of the locals, at first sounded like yet another talk about horseflesh, but then switched.
The first man, a thin elder, was muttering, “. . . dwarfs keep insisting. Even said they saw the place glow once.”
“Ain’t nothing happens in that godforsaken place. I don’t even think there’s no Dragon King there. Never hear anythin’.” His companion, about half his age and with as thick a beard as any the warlock had ever seen, picked up his mug and drank long from it.
“So? We ever hear anything from our drake? You see a few in the city near the king’s place, but old Green never shows up or demands anything. Could be the same with this one.”
The younger man put down the mug. “But still . . .”
Their conversation shifted again, talking about Dragon Kings and kings in general. Cabe held back a grimace. The glow and the dwarfs interested him, but he could hardly walk over to the men and ask them. He wished that he could be like Shade had been. The master warlock had not only been able to hide his presence in a full inn, but he would blatantly summon people, ask them questions, and send them away without them recalling or anyone else taking the slightest notice. Cabe could have done the same, but he felt wrong about doing so.
He focused on two other discussions, found nothing, then discovered that even with his concentration, he could not make out any of the others clearly enough. The stew lost some of its flavor as he realized that he would have to resort to sorcery and modify his hearing. Again, it was a simple spell, but he still did not care for any transformation, however minor.
It took him but a moment to do it. Now, he was not only able to hear conversations on the far side of the room, but he could pick them out of all the others and hear those speaking as if no one else were making a sound.
Much to his regret, however, it turned out that no one had anything concrete to add to what he knew. Cabe had expected it, but had hoped for more. He would have to search elsewhere. Rising, he left the nearly empty bowl and mostly untouched cider and departed before the serving girl returned.
There was no dearth of inns in this quarter. Not all of them were up to the standards of Belfour’s Champion, but all of them were surprisingly neat. Compared to the worst, Wyvern’s Head had been a stable.
No, not a stable, Cabe thought as he entered the next one. You can literally eat off the floor in these stables.
At the next two places, the warlock picked up a smattering of information. An intruder killed in the west, his identity unknown. He had been carrying a pouchful of foreign gold and a few valuable gemstones. Two guards had died in taking him . . . and the patrol had originally only wanted to ask him the same simple questions they asked every visitor. Another body found, this one stripped of all his possessions. Oddly, the two did not seem directly connected.
There was mention of the glow again, a brief brightness that had lit up part of the western sky the very night that Cabe had had the second vision. Only a few had actually seen it; most of those he listened to knew of it only secondhand. Evidently Zuu did actually keep a few hours aside for rest.
After the fifth inn, Cabe came to the conclusion that he had heard all he would hear this evening. While he had not garnered much more than he had begun with, he was not unsatisfied. Slightly fatigued, the warlock started back to the stable where Darkhorse was no doubt impatiently waiting for him. The eternal would probably be disappointed in his findings, but that did not matter.
He was just passing Belfour’s Champion when he sensed something amiss, although what it was he could not say.
“Well, it’s our visitor who eats and runs without saying farewell to a girl.”
It was the serving woman from the inn. In the flickering light of the torches, she almost reminded him of a drake woman, so magical did her beauty seem. She had a shawl over her shoulders that could not have served to keep her warm and certainly had not been chosen to protect her modesty.
“Is that a custom I missed?”
The woman, who appeared to have been walking quietly along the avenue, smiled and shook her head. “Only an opportunity.” Slowly she pulled away the shawl. “But there are always other opportunities, other chances, for the right man.”
He stood his ground even though a part of him urged swift retreat. Before Gwen, he had never been better than inept with women. Cabe was still not certain how he had been so fortunate as to marry her. “I’m flattered, but I’ll have to decline.”
She hesitated for a brief moment, almost as if she was confused by his response. Then she advanced toward him again, growing somehow even more desirable than she had before.
Again, Cabe sensed that something was amiss. He blinked, then stared carefully at the girl. She mistook his expression for a positive response to her advances and reached out to him. The warlock took her proffered hand . . . then reached out with his power and froze her where she was. He allowed her only to speak.
“Let me go! What are you doing?”
“There are certain things an enchantress should be careful about doing and one of those is picking the wrong victim to use your spells on.” Cabe led her by the hand to the side of the stable, where they would not so readily be seen. The would be seductress followed, walking in jerky movements. He now controlled her actions; she could do nothing but breathe, see, and hear. Even her ability to talk hinged on Cabe’s desire. He disliked having to do this, but he could not take chances with so wild a sorceress. There was no telling what other tricks she might know.
When they were safely ensconced, he whispered, “You will speak softly. I won’t hurt you if you don’t try anything and if you answer me honestly. Understand?”
“Good.” Even with her spell of seduction removed, it was difficult for him to stand so close to her. If he backed away, however, he knew she would notice. That would throw some of the advantage back to her, which was not what he wanted. “Who are you? Why did you seek me out?” He studied her hair. His eyes had not been augmented for the dark, but up close, he should still have been able to see it.
“You may call me Tori, warlock, and what I wanted—and still want—is simply you.” Her smile was dazzling. Understanding his confusion, she added, “The streak is on the left, buried beneath another layer of hair. All it takes is some artful combing.”
That would not serve her forever, the warlock knew. Soon, the mark would make itself so evident that nothing short of false hair or a hood like his would be sufficient. However, that was not so important now as what she was doing here. “Why? Why do you want me?”
“Are you serious? What sort of life have—”
He waved her to silence. “You know that’s not what I meant. There were certainly better choices in there than me.”
She cocked her head to one side. Cabe had not realized that he had allowed her more mobility. That was a bad sign; it meant that she was either stronger than he had supposed or her influence on him was. Either way, it spelled trouble. “True, there were men who were prettier, master warlock, but pretty is not all I want. I want someone who thinks as well, someone with ambition and ability . . .”
He understood now. “And someone with skill in the art of sorcery.”
“Yes. Very much so. Not just for the sake of that power, though that certainly sweetens things, but because I want someone who understands what it’s like to be so . . . superior and different. I want someone of the same world as I. When I saw you, I sensed somehow that you were like me, that you were the one I was searching for. All my patience and sweat have been for something after all. I was beginning to believe that I would be working in taverns for the rest of my life, searching for someone else like me. Someone like you.”
Although it seemed that each week brought rumors of new mages, they were still few and far apart. Cabe understood Tori. Here she was, with skills she had not been tutored in the proper use of, trapped in a place where there was no one else like her. Or was there?
“There must be at least one other spellcaster here, Tori. These markers are magical.”
“There are a few, master warlock, but they are hardly the company I would keep. Besides, they work solely for Zuu and I will have my own life. You would be wise to watch that marker. It lets them know if a mage is in the city. That’s how the king recruits.”
“Recruits?” All thought of Tori’s attempted seduction faded.
“King Lanith wants magic users. He hasn’t decided what he wants to do with them, but he wants them.” She put a cool hand to his chin. “You know, there may have been some prettier ones, but I like the character and strength in your face more. You could teach me how to use sorcery properly and I could—”
“That’ll be enough of that. There’s a certain enchantress, the mother of my children, who might take offense. She and I are very protective of each other. If you want training, then something can be arranged.”
“With you?” With the swiftness of a feline pouncing on her prey, she was against him. Cabe started to push her away, but then both of them stopped and turned their attention to a sound coming from beyond the street. Tori glanced up into his face. “You had best be leaving, my love. I carry a false marker, so I’m safe, but you must have been using much magic tonight. Those little toys aren’t usually so efficient.”
“What is it? What’s coming?”
“Lanith’s hired mages and the city guard.” Even under the circumstances, she took the time to run a finger slowly over his chest. “They are not much to look at and separately they’re inept, but the three of them together with the guards could give you trouble . . . and I wouldn’t want that. We will meet again some day, my warlock.”
She leaned up, gave him a swift but powerful kiss, and vanished before he could ask her his next question. Tori had the potential to be a very adept mage, it seemed, if her skills were honed so well already.
Disconcerted, Cabe stood there for several seconds. He had come to Zuu for information, not in order to be involved in some enchantress’s wild notions or another king’s murky ambitions. Legar was beginning to look more and more inviting with each passing moment.
There was a clatter in the street, a clatter with a very definite military sound to it. Cabe felt the presence of other mages. Unlike Tori, they made no attempt to mask themselves. He sensed them draw upon the natural forces of the world, but draw upon them in such haphazard manner that it was a wonder they did not accidentally unleash some wild spell on themselves.
“He’s around, he is,” came a gruff female voice.
“Well, it’s your task to find him, mage. Do so.”
“Do not proceed to tell us our duties.” This voice, male, was more cultured than that of either of the previous two.
The warlock pressed himself against the wall, a frown on his lips. His best choice was to teleport to Darkhorse and for the two of them to leave instantly.
Thought was action. Cabe materialized a few stalls down from where he had left Darkhorse. The warlock purposely chose a spot near the stable wall, the better to avoid being seen by some boy or groom. Other than the horses, though, he saw no one. Cautiously he stepped away from the wall and started toward the shadowy steed.
“Dark—” The warlock bit off the rest of the name as he found himself staring at a tall figure clad in a long, flowing robe of white. The man stood like one of the storybook wizards Cabe had grown up hearing about, the ones that only existed in tales. He even had the long white beard.
The man stared at him. After a breath or two had passed, Cabe came to the realization that the man was not staring at him, but rather at the spot where he stood. He did not see the warlock at all. Becoming daring, the bemused warlock waved a hand in front of his counterpart’s countenance. The bearded mage might have been a statue for all he noticed.
“He came barging in all important,” mocked a voice from behind the still figure. The gate to Darkhorse’s stall opened of its own accord and the demon steed trotted out. “I think he must have been looking for you but sensed me instead. Then, just as he had decided to give up, you came along. His powers are not that great, not by far, but he is very sensitive to the presence of magic. I did the only thing I could do under the circumstances. Who was the hungry female?”
The question caught Cabe off-balance for a second, but he quickly replied, “Another spellcaster.”
“They seem to be breeding like mice these days. There are two others nearby.”
“I know; that’s why I’m here. We have to leave.”
“We would not think of letting you leave without first hearing the offer our most benevolent lord has commanded us to present to you.”
It was the male spellcaster Cabe had heard moments earlier. In contrast to his companion, he was clad like a minister of state from one of the northern kingdoms, like Erini’s own Gordag-Ai. In one hand, he carried a cane whose top was two silver-and-crystal horse heads. The mage himself was tall and narrow of face with a long mustache and thin, oiled hair. Beady eyes glanced at the petrified figure behind Cabe. The thin mouth curled up into a slight smile.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.” The warlock was feeling too popular of late. Unknown forces were summoning him to Legar, enchantresses were seeking him for . . . for many things . . . and now kings wanted his services. He only wanted to go home and spend the next couple of hundred years with his family and friends.
“You have not heard the offer yet.” The other spellcaster tapped the end of his two-headed cane on the stable floor. “And you shall not leave until you do.”
Cabe could feel a sudden change, as if a blanket had been thrown over the stable. There was a dull ache in his head. His counterpart was trying to cut him off from any use of power. While that likely worked against an untrained or novice sorcerer, Cabe Bedlam was neither. With a simple, forceful thought, he cut through the magical barrier and restored to full intensity his link to the Dragonrealm.
The other mage’s cane promptly exploded.
“What? What?” The white-robed figure was mobile again. He glanced this way and that, trying desperately to figure out what was going on. Distracted by the surprising explosion, Darkhorse had lost control of the spell holding him in place.
Blinded briefly by the burst of sorcerous energy unleashed, Cabe could only now see what had happened to the elegant mage. The dull ache in his head had now become a raging headache, likely a backlash from the chaos of the cane’s destruction. The blast had thrown the other spellcaster back into one of the stable doors, where he lay unconscious. He wondered what sort of idiotic matrix the man had incorporated into the staff that would make it backfire like that when the spell was disrupted. Having never faced someone of true power, the other must have been unaware of the dangers. The cane was an interesting device, but when one chose to tie an item to a particular spell in order to save one’s concentration and strength for other things, one should make certain that the matrix, which stored or drew the power depending on the spell, was fortified in all dimensions. Obviously, there had been a weak link somewhere. Cabe was furious; it was not his intention to harm anyone. He did not wish to do anything that might strain relations between Zuu and himself. So far, no one knew who he was, but that might not be the case in the future. If King Lanith discovered it was Cabe Bedlam who had caused the chaos, there would likely be repercussions.
“What have you done? Hold there, young man!” The white-robed spellcaster reached for Cabe.
“Oh, do be still!” bellowed Darkhorse. Once more the figure froze. “Are we leaving now? This grows most tiresome!”
“Yes, we are! I—” His head still pounded. “I’d better ride you and let you teleport! That way we’re guaranteed to be together! My head—”
“Feels much the way I do! My entire body feels twisted inside out! I should give that mage a sound kicking! Next time, I will! Where to? Legar?”
“No, not yet! Somewhere near what used to be the edge of the Barren Lands, where the Brown Dragon once ruled! I need time to clear my head!” Cabe scrambled aboard the darksome steed and clutched at the reins. Before now, they had been merely for show since Darkhorse obviously did not need to be led. Now, though, they were the warlock’s lifeline. He swayed in the saddle as the pounding continued. His entire body felt sluggish. If this was what came of leaving new spellcasters to train themselves, then it was important that they start the new schools as soon as possible. Sorcerers left unchecked might someday gain the potential to ruin the world. It was a wonder it had never happened before.
He looked around. They were still in the stable and the sounds of soldiers outside warned that time was rapidly melting away. Cabe did not want to cause an incident. No one had recognized him so far, but he could not take the chance. “What’s wrong? Why are we still here?”
“That infernal explosion has addled me! I cannot summon the concentration to depart! Me! Darkhorse! I should kick that prestidigitating popinjay all the way back to his master!”
The warlock put a hand to his head. It did not stop the pain, but it eased the pressure a little bit. “We’ll have to ride through the city! Can you do that?”
“They shall have but a trail of dust to mark our time here!”
Mark? That made Cabe think of something else. He did not want anyone following them. Reaching for the U-shaped talisman, he took the item and threw it as far from him as possible. Did the Green Dragon know what was going on in his own kingdom? He was certain the draconian ruler would find all of this interesting. All Cabe had to do was find the time to tell him.
“I’m ready, then!” He heard pounding on the stable doors. Where the stableboy was, he did not know, but he thanked the stars that no one was there to immediately open the way for the guards. “We’ll have to ride through the doors when they open!”
“Why wait?” Darkhorse laughed, reared, and went charging toward the thick wooden barriers.
The anxious warlock bent down low and prayed he had concentration enough to shield himself when the doors shattered.
As luck would have it or not, depending on the point of view, the guards managed to open the doors then. They were greeted by the sight of a huge stallion with gleaming blue eyes like the chill of winter coming at them at a speed that allowed no hesitation in choice. Most of the guards made the correct choice and dove to the side. A couple stood their ground, not experienced enough to understand why the veterans were scattering. After all, it was only a horse.
Darkhorse charged through the first one, then leapt over the head of the other.
The demon steed roared with laughter as he raced away from the stables. Cabe, still clutching tight, was thankful that none of the men could see that it was the mount and not the rider who was mocking them. Darkhorse was known well enough throughout the Dragonrealm, even if half of those who knew of him thought him legend. If word reached King Lanith that the shadow steed had been in Zuu and that a warlock of considerable skill had been seen with him, it would be reasonable for the monarch to assume that it was the warlock most known for his friendship with Darkhorse. What Lanith would or would not do was a question that Cabe did not want to have to consider.
Through the streets of Zuu the two raced. A few people here and there scattered as the great black beast fairly flew past them. One man actually stood his ground and raised a hand in encouragement as they went by. The last thing they heard from him was, “Aaryn’s Spur! I’ll give a hundred gold for the next colt he sires! What do you . . .”
They were just out of earshot when Darkhorse turned down a side avenue. Cabe looked up, noticing that they were now heading away from the gates of the city. “Where’re you going? This is the quickest way out!”
“But not the best!” The eternal’s voice was a subdued roar. It was still doubtful that in the dark anyone could tell that it was him talking. “Look before you!”
He did . . . and saw only the wall circling Zuu before them. There was no gate, only solid stone. “Are you—”
“Since I cannot teleport . . . yes!”
These streets were deserted, the only good thing to happen to them this night as far as the warlock was concerned. Cabe tried to concentrate again, but the headache only grew worse and his body tingled so much that he had to squirm despite his precarious balance. He would have to trust Darkhorse. Darkhorse had not and would not fail him. He would not.
The black stallion leapt into the air and over the wall. The harried mage took one look down at the shrinking world and decided that closing his eyes might be best after all.
They began to plummet earthward.
THE PANDEMONIUM AT the stable had drawn both natives and visitors and even several minutes after the escape by the unknown rider, many of the spectators were still milling around trying to piece together the story.
The mages, looking disgruntled, perplexed, and dismayed, quickly departed the scene, none of them uttering so much as a single word. Some of the guards, however, were more vocal, the common folk of Zuu liking to tell or hear a good story whenever possible. Soon, a very distorted version of what had happened spread among the populace. There had been a score of riders. A band of spellcasters had been using the stable for their rituals. The king’s mages had been practicing, but something had gone wrong and they had summoned a demon out of the ether.
None of the stories was correct, but a careful listener who wandered about could piece together much from what was said, almost enough to re-create the true event.
To a spy clad in the stolen clothing of a murdered merchant, such a thing was child’s play.
THEY HAD LOST two men in the tunnels during the night. Two men suspiciously close to the chamber where Lord D’Farany and the blue devil worked to decipher the monsters’ secrets. Two men too many as far as Orril D’Marr was concerned. There was something special about the chamber, something other than the obvious, and he was the only one who suspected the truth. D’Marr was certain that the deaths had to do with a passage that was not there . . . at least not now.
It did not help that he was certain the beasts he held prisoner were laughing at him. Even when he questioned them, put them to the scepter, they seemed to be laughing. There was some great riddle that only they knew the answer to and they were not talking. He had come close to killing one, but for some reason the almost eager look in the beast’s eyes had made him draw back.
Lord D’Farany would not hear his suspicions and the damned blue man merely gave him a smug smile each time. If there was a problem, Lord D’Farany had said, then it was up to D’Marr to deal with it. That was his function, after all.
I will deal with it, oh, yes . . . Each time his master descended into the tunnel, the Quel seemed to grow expectant. Each time he returned, they grew morose. The young officer had first thought that they were expecting an attack on the leader of their enemies, but then he saw that his assumption was wrong. The armored beasts wanted him to go to the chamber . . . but why?
To discover that reason, he had decided to drag one of the overgrown armadillos to the chamber and try a few tests.
Neither Lord D’Farany nor the northerner was in the chamber. That was as he had planned it. The only ones that D’Marr wanted here were the few men he needed to keep the Quel under control. This was his moment.
“Bring him forward so that he can see what I do.”
The soldiers dragged the wary beast toward the center of the room. D’Marr removed the scepter from his belt and walked slowly over to his captive. Some of the wariness in those inhuman eyes faded. The Quel had almost become used to the magical rod. It was an enemy that the prisoners understood.
The young officer touched the tip of the scepter against the underside of the Quel’s snout. As he had expected, the creature flinched. D’Marr smiled ever so briefly at the puzzlement he could read in the other’s eyes. There had been no pain. D’Marr had not activated his toy.
“I know you can understand me, so listen well. There are two things you should note, my ugly beastie.” He kept the tip of the scepter no more than a few inches from the Quel’s eyes, now and then swinging it back and forth so as to keep the prisoner off-guard. “The first is that you should never think of me as predictable.” He tapped the rod against the Quel’s snout, this time giving him but the least of the pain levels.
He had the creature’s attention now. D’Marr backed up and began to walk about the chamber. He continued to talk as he played at studying its interior. “The second item you should be aware of is that I have not bothered with the speech stone this time. Your answers would only be repetitive. Also, what I need to know from you now does not require words or images.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the look of cautious curiosity that had spread across that monstrous visage. D’Marr put a hand on the crystalline device. He sensed the Quel flinch almost as much as when he had put the scepter to the subterranean’s head.
The Aramite officer brought the weapon dangerously close to the crystals aligned on the top of the alien creation. Then, as if unaware of both what he had nearly done and the Quel’s reaction, D’Marr stepped away. He walked to the far end of the chamber and started pacing the outer edge, occasionally tapping the wall with his staff as he went. The Quel’s eyes never left him.
“There are things you are hiding from us, beast.” Tap. “I have been trying to be reasonable about this.” Tap. “You must understand, my lord’s becoming impatient.” Tap. “And now your fellow monsters have taken two of our men.” Orril D’Marr stopped and turned to face the captive. “Two men very near to this place. Two men, who might have seen . . . what?”
Still facing the Quel, he snapped his arm back and struck the wall beside him soundly with the top of the scepter.
The armored leviathan gave a muffled hoot and tried to leap forward despite being bound. His guards dragged him back, although it took some effort to do so. D’Marr allowed himself a rare full, satisfied smile as he watched the Quel’s unsuccessful struggle. Noticing his tormentor’s own reaction, a look that might have been equivalent to human consternation crossed the inhuman features.
“Thank you.” The wolf raider glanced at the mace. Despite its somewhat fragile appearance, it was very sturdy. The head was not at all chipped. When his predecessor had had it created, he had wanted a weapon that could be used in combat as well. D’Marr was thankful for his forethought. It would take much to even scar the scepter.
He turned to inspect the area that he had struck. It was the same region where, on the first day, he had thought that he had seen another chamber or tunnel. That day, D’Marr had inspected the area and found only solid wall, but he had been nagged ever since by doubt. He was not one to imagine such things. Now, thanks to the Quel’s violent and unthinking response, D’Marr was certain that there was indeed a chamber or passage hidden behind the glittering facade.
Even had the Quel not responded as he had expected, there would have been proof of a sort to back his suspicions. Each time he had brought the baton against the glittering wall, he had left a tiny trail of cracked crystal and rock behind him. Yet, despite utilizing the full strength of his arm, his last strike had not left so much as a single scratch in the surface of this section of the wall. It might be that he had happened to strike an area of exceptionally resilient crystal, but D’Marr doubted that. No, there was something special about this particular bit of wall.
The raider officer turned away from the others and ran his hand over the suspect area, as he had done the first day. There was no sign of a break. There was nothing that might betray the falseness of the wall. “Nonetheless,” he whispered, “I shall have to tear you down. Stone by stone, if necessary.”
“To do that, Orril, would be a most distressing thing to me.”
He spun around. “My lord?”
As the officer fell to his knees, the Pack Leader slowly entered the chamber. He was accompanied by the blue man and his personal guard. Standing in the tunnel, just beyond the entrance, was what appeared to be a full squadron. Lord D’Farany looked about the chamber, his expression that of a man who is home at last. “You know nothing of the work of sorcery, Orril. Of the intricate matrices that must sometimes be arranged. Of the nuances of concentration, so simple in theory but perplexing in practice.” D’Farany stroked the side edge of the Quel artifact. His eyes fixed on a location above D’Marr’s head. “Of the care one must take. . . . If you understood such things, you would certainly realize what permanently damaging the integrity of this room might do to my prize.”
The young officer had not considered that. He recalled the minute but very real damage he had already caused the wall. Would that be sufficient to upset the balance of the magical array? If so, then he had handed his own head to the blue man.
“Forgive me, my lord. I had our interests at heart. I’m certain that there’s a hidden chamber behind the portion of the wall I was inspecting. The beasts know it; I’ve watched them. I tricked this one into betraying himself. There may be something, some threat to us, hidden there.”
“And so trusting of the Quel, who would seek to trick, you would destroy all this, yes?” interjected D’Rance. The two men locked gazes. The northerner was enjoying this.
“There will be . . . none of that.” The Pack Leader actually shuddered, as if the mere thought of any damage to this place physically pained him. He pointed in the direction of D’Marr. “The wall, Kanaan . . .”
“My lord.” Bowing, the blue man stalked across the chamber. As he neared his rival, he smirked. D’Marr’s grip on his scepter tightened. Given the least of excuses, he would have been willing to strike down the blue devil right there and then.
D’Rance ran both hands over the questionable section. His eyes were half-closed in concentration; he almost seemed in a trance. At last, he turned back to his master and said, “This wall feels like the others, my lord, yes, but I am only a simple soldier.” After a moment’s hesitation, he slyly added, “He does not seem to have damaged it yet, either.”
“There will be no breaking down of walls.” To Lord D’Farany, that was evidently the final word on the subject. He turned his attention to the Quel device. D’Marr exhaled quietly. He would find other ways to pursue the matter . . . and take the blue man to task while he was at it.
D’Rance was not finished with him, however. The northerner stepped past the Aramite and studied the floor. D’Marr grew still. After a brief inspection, the blue man looked up. “My lord, I fear that there may be damage to the chamber after all. There are several places where the crystal face has been chipped, perhaps by a blunt weapon, yes.”
Perhaps I should chip your face with this blunt weapon . . . He readied himself for punishment. There would surely be no escaping it this time.
Lord D’Farany leaned over the crystalline device. He was silent for nearly a minute. Then, “We shall see what will happen, Kanaan. I do not like to execute a man for no reason.”
Familiar with his master’s ways, D’Marr was not at all comforted by the comment.
“Now come, Kanaan. I can wait no longer.”
That there were not only more than a dozen soldiers present but also a Quel as well did not appear to disturb the Pack Leader in the slightest. He only had eyes for the crystalline magic of the chamber. His gauntlets put aside, he carefully inspected each and every major facet of the peculiar artifact.
The blue man, on the other hand, was not at all pleased with the crowd. As he joined the Aramite commander, he asked, “My lord, would it not be better if those unnecessary would depart, yes? They could cause distraction and perhaps also unknown harm. It would be best, yes, if they retreated back to the previous passage even.”
“Do what you will,” D’Farany responded rather distractedly, his response accompanied by a curt wave of his hand.
Kanaan D’Rance dismissed everyone, including even the guards that D’Marr had brought with him. The sentries urged the Quel to his feet, but as they were dragging him toward the tunnel leading to the surface, the Pack Leader turned his ambiguous gaze in their direction. “Leave it. Orril, the thing is your responsibility.”
“Yes, my lord,” responded the short raider. He rose quickly to his feet and took control of the prisoner. At his command, the Quel knelt again. Two guards remained long enough to bind the beastman’s legs together, then, saluting, they hurried after their comrades.
“Would it not be wiser to—”
“It shall watch, Kanaan. I want it to watch.”
There was no argument. One did not argue with the Pack Leader . . . at least not often if one wanted to keep one’s head.
The raider leader touched several crystals. D’Marr felt a tingle, but it passed away. The Quel was leaning forward, his dark eyes narrowed. You don’t like what you see, do you, beastie? Did you underestimate my lord simply because his world is not always ours? What were you expecting? I wonder. He observed with care the way the captive followed each and every gesture made by Lord D’Farany. There was growing apprehension in the monster’s ugly countenance. This was more than what the Quel had expected, he thought. He uses your toy like an adept, doesn’t he? You expected less of him, didn’t you?
It was then that the chamber . . . twinkled. That was the only word that D’Marr thought appropriate. Even though they were well into the depths of the earth, stars now shone bright above them. A thousand points of light sparkled, almost a dizzying effect. Colors from one end of the spectrum to the other danced about like fairies wild and gay. There was a low, almost inaudible hum that seemed to course through the mind. The young Aramite gritted his teeth. The others were either unaware of it or affected in a different manner. D’Marr only knew that it set him on edge, made him want to flee the area. He could not, of course, do any such thing.
“Kanaan . . . I will take the box now.” Perhaps it was some trick of his addled perceptions, but D’Marr thought it seemed as if it were a different Lord D’Farany who stood there. This one was almost sane in speech and manner. The eyes were nearly focused on what he was doing. His words did not come out in sometimes random phrases, but rather as complete and, for the most part, coherent statements.
Somehow, it only made him that much more frightening.
The blue man removed a small black box and turned it quickly over to the Pack Leader. Orril D’Marr squinted. He knew what was in the box, but could not fathom what purpose the Pack Leader had in mind for the contents. The thing within was dead, powerless. The Pack Leader had drained it during the initial assault against the Quel. It was nothing more than a memento of the past now . . . wasn’t it?
Lord D’Farany opened the box and removed from it the Aramite talisman that he had used to silence the Quel’s power.
A muffled hoot made D’Marr glance down at the captive. The Quel had evidently fathomed the raider leader’s intentions. He squirmed anew, trying to free himself from bonds designed to hold creatures much stronger than he. D’Marr increased the intensity of his scepter and jolted the Quel back into submission. He would have liked to have asked the beastman what concerned him so, but he had neither the time nor the means to do so. We will know soon enough . . .
The former keeper inspected the curved artifact. “There can be no flaw,” he explained to no one in particular. “All of my calculations of the past days demand that. Any flaw would mean disaster.”
It was no comfort at all to the young raider that D’Rance was just as dismayed by the comment as he was. The blue man took an involuntary step backward and, if anything, was a much paler blue than he had been seconds before.
D’Farany looked up from his work. He gazed at the Quel as if seeing him for the first time. “This device is recent, isn’t it? I thought as much. It lacks the care and design of so much else here, yet it holds so much more potential. Why did you build it?”
The Quel, of course, could not and would not answer. This was apparently unimportant to Lord D’Farany. He shrugged and returned his concern to the Aramite talisman and the peculiar creation of the armored underdwellers.
“It is incomplete. I shall complete it for y—for me.”
With his free hand he rearranged the central pattern, plucking gemstones from their chosen locations and replacing them with others from the array. The Quel started to shake and twist, but still to no avail. D’Marr gave his captive another touch of the rod, but even then the massive figure continued to shift.
Satisfied with his alterations, the Pack Leader added the talisman to the arrangement.
The room crackled . . . and from each point of light a bolt of blue darted toward the Quel creation.
D’Marr covered his eyes and ducked down. The blue man pressed himself against the wall nearest to the entrance to the chamber and simply stared. Beside D’Marr, the underdweller rocked back and forth as if expecting the end of everything.
The wolf raider was almost inclined to agree with him.
Tenuous, frantic strands of light, the blue bolts struck the crystalline device, bathing it in brilliant color. D’Marr felt his hair stand of its own accord and saw that the others suffered the same effect. Only Lord D’Farany, standing within the bright cobalt glow, was untouched . . . at least on the surface.
He was smiling. Smiling as a lover might while in the tender embrace of his desire. It was perhaps a very apt description, the officer realized, for to the former keeper the power that bathed him was both his love and desire. The loss of it had killed most of his kind and sent him into madness.
Orril D’Marr was too young to really recall the keepers when they had been at the apex of their glory. He only knew the stories and the few survivors he had seen. He knew that without the will of the Ravager and the work of his most trusted servants, the keepers, the empire had begun to crumble. Part of him had always wondered at the speed of that decay. Why had the great armies so depended on a tiny minority in their ranks?
Seeing D’Farany, he thought he understood. A keeper at the peak of his power was an army unto himself.
The Pack Leader still smiled. His eyes stared upward at the spiderweb of energy pouring into the crystalline artifact. Blue sparks drifted from his fingers whenever he moved his hands. His eyes gleamed blue.
With each passing second, the glow surrounding both the Pack Leader and his newfound toy became less bearable. D’Marr turned away, but found himself facing the blinding glow in a thousand reflections. He turned farther, seeking some respite, something that did not reflect the light.
What the raider found instead was the very passage he had been searching for.
A gaping mouth, it was so blatant a sight he could not understand how it had taken him even this long to notice it. He took a step toward it, but then something caught him by the foot, nearly sending him crashing to the harsh floor. The Aramite regained his balance and glanced over his shoulder. He saw the desperate Quel, the inhuman eyes wide, struggling to roll over to him and somehow stop the raider’s advance. D’Marr smiled briefly at the pathetic sight, but a sudden change in the Quel’s eyes, a change from fear to burgeoning hope, shattered the smile and sent the raider’s attention flying back to the secret entranceway.
It was already fading. The same crystal-encrusted wall was slowly re-forming, growing more solid with each passing breath. The Quel suddenly forgotten, D’Marr raced toward the vanishing passage. The wall was still transparent, but that was rapidly changing. Reaching out in desperation, he slammed a hand against it, but his efforts only rewarded him with pain. It was too late to cross through. The split-second delay caused by his gloating had lost him his opportunity.
Still, he had a moment, but only a short one, in which to glimpse what secret lay behind the cursed wall. It was a harried glimpse, made the worse by the lessening transparency of the stone and crystal. Nonetheless, he was able to make out shapes, hundreds of shapes, in a cavern that must have been nearly as immense as the one in which the city lay.
D’Marr saw no more than that. The wall became completely opaque, the stone and crystal completely innocent in appearance.
He slowly turned back to the others and was not at all surprised to find that Lord D’Farany had just completed his work. The tentacles of energy had withdrawn; if not for the blue glow about the top of the Quel device, the chamber would have looked exactly as it had before they had entered.
“Not the same . . .” the Pack Leader was muttering. Despite his words, however, a smile had crept across his scarred visage. “Not the same, but so very close . . . I will just have to accept that.”
His eyes were still focused.
“My lord, I shall remove the tooth, yes?” D’Rance looked exceptionally eager. D’Marr momentarily put his discovery aside and started to mouth a protest. He knew, through careful observance, that the northerner had some trace of power. Was it possible that he had more? Did he have the will and ability to control the keeper talisman? That would take more skill than the Aramite had suspected him of having.
His words of protest never left his lips, for Lord D’Farany was quicker to respond. His eyes bore down on the blue man and D’Marr had the distinct pleasure of watching his rival cringe under the intensity of those suddenly alive orbs. “Your readiness to assist me in all is commendable, Kanaan, but you may leave it where it is. There is no more secure place for it now than where it presently stands.”
D’Rance assumed a more servile position. “Yes, my lord. I meant nothing by it, my lord.”
The Pack Leader had already dismissed him from his attention. Now those eyes focused on the peculiar scene of the Quel lying on his side far from where he had been earlier positioned and Orril D’Marr standing near the wall, much too far away from the prisoner that he had been charged with guarding. “And you, Orril?”
The raider wondered how he was to convince Lord D’Farany of what he had seen. An entire cavern lay hidden from the invasion force, yet only he believed—knew, rather—that it was there. The Pack Leader and the blue devil had been so engrossed in the spectacle above them that they had missed the unveiling of the Quel’s secret.
“Forgive me also, Lord D’Farany. Sorcery is not my realm. I admit to having been somewhat . . . overwhelmed . . . by the results. I’ve seen things I’d never expected to see.”
“Wonderful things . . . and there will be so much more . . .” The Pack Leader gazed down at the Quel creation, his eyes filled with great fondness. “We shall do so much together, the two of us . . .”
The eyes were losing focus.
With a last gentle touch, the Pack Leader separated himself from his prized possession and, to neither subordinate’s surprise, departed without a word. Kanaan D’Rance remained behind only long enough to look from the device to his rival before he disappeared into the tunnel after the Aramite commander.
D’Marr stared thoughtfully at the wall that had, so far, beaten his efforts to unmask it for what it was. He would have to find another way in than this place, that was all. Perhaps there was another chamber that also shared a wall with the hidden cavern. It would be a simple matter of exploration, of hunting. He excelled in hunting, no matter what the prey. Then, with the aid of his explosive toys, he would create for himself a new and permanent way inside. There would be no magic to stop him then.
From the mouth of the tunnel, a wave of black armor flowed into the room. It was the guard contingent Lord D’Farany had brought with him. The ranks split as each man entered, one line moving to the left side of the chamber and the other to the right. D’Marr signaled two of the soldiers to take custody of the Quel. The captive departed without protest, but inhuman eyes watched the young officer until the depths of the tunnel swallowed the creature. The other guards shifted their ranks to make up for the slight loss to their number.
I will have to make measurements, D’Marr thought, returning with anticipation to the project ahead. Too much powder and the explosive would bring down not only the wall but the rest of the cavern as well. Best to find the proper spot first. Then I can judge how much will be needed.
There were already men mapping the complex system of caverns and tunnels that made up the Quel domain. While far from complete, he was certain that their charts already revealed enough for his present concerns. With so much importance placed on this particular section of the underground world, it had only been logical to map it first.
He had much work ahead of him, but Orril D’Marr was pleased. He was on the verge of shattering the last hope of the beastmen and discovering what great secret lay in that cavern behind the wall.
The guards came to even greater attention as he passed them on his way out of the chamber, but the raider officer paid their fear of him no mind this time. His only thought was on the coming success of his project and the look on the blue man’s face when D’Marr revealed to Lord D’Farany the most closely guarded of the underdwellers’ mysteries . . . whatever it was.
THEY DID NOT know how close they had come.
The Crystal Dragon stirred himself from the self-imposed stupor. Trust the wolf raiders to be both predictable and unpredictable. He had been certain that they would somehow seize control of the Quel’s domain. He had been fairly certain that they would have some success with the subterraneans’ mechanisms. What he had not been prepared for was the level of that success. The invaders already had a grasp of the abilities of Quel might. Given just a little more time, they would grow adept. A little more . . . and they would dare to confront him.
He should strike before they grew too strong. He should risk himself, for delaying the inevitable only made the later consequences worse.
How? How do I sssstrike? It mussst be effective but taking the least effort and concentration possible! There cannot be too much risssk. That might lead to . . . If only there had been time to rest. That would have changed everything. They would have been insects to crush beneath his huge paws.
The glittering leviathan twisted his neck around and sought among the treasures he had accumulated over time. Some were there because of simple value, some because of purpose. Carefully he scoured the vast pile. There were times when he had thought of organizing it again, storing it anew in the lower cavern chambers, but that would mean leaving the protection of his sanctum and doing so might prove the final, fatal blow.
Sssomething . . .
Then, to one side of the pile, almost separate from it, the Dragon King sighted the answer to his plea. It was not what he had wanted, not in the least, but the longer he stared at it the more the dread monarch knew it was his only choice. Massive, daggerlike talons gently picked up a small crystalline sphere in which it seemed a tiny, reddish green cloud floated. There was something unhealthy about the cloud, for the colors did not speak of life, but long and lingering decay. The sphere was no larger than a human head, which made it tiny indeed for one such as he, but he had learned care in using this gargantuan form, for even shifting to the manlike image his counterparts preferred was dangerous now. Each transformation distracted him, made him more vulnerable to . . . to the danger of losing himself. Now especially he dared not transform. It might be just enough, combined with his lack of rest, to defeat his long efforts.
He was careful for another reason. What the cloud represented could not be accidentally released full-fledged upon the world, not even for as short as a single blink of an eye.
But what of a tiny fragment of its evil? Might that do?
With the tenderness of a parent holding a newborn babe, the Dragon King brought the sphere to near eye level. A distorted image of his monstrous face glared back at him, but he forced himself to ignore it as he always did.
“Yessss, you could aid me. You could act where I cannot. You could blind them; lead them assstray. Perhaps you could even remove this blight on my kingdom.” The Dragon King laughed bitterly. “A blight to plague a blight. So very apt.”
He continued to contemplate the sphere. The cloud swirled, briefly revealing a hellish landscape. The crystal artifact was not a thing designed to contain but was rather a door of sorts . . . a door to a nightmare that the drake lord had lived with since almost the beginning.
“Nooo . . .” whispered the crystalline-skinned dragon. “Not yet. I mussst consssider thisss firssst . . . yet . . .” He twisted his head to one side and looked at the deadly cloud from another angle. “If only the decision were not mine anymore.”
Lowering his paw, the Dragon King summoned up the images of the raider camp. He stared long and hard at the army and its leaders, memories of another time and another invasion slowly seizing hold of him.
“Ssso very much alike they are,” he hissed. “Asss if the world hasss gone full circle.”
The malevolent cloud in his paw shifted violently, almost as if it were reacting to the words of the drake. The Crystal Dragon did not notice the change, caught up as he was in both the sights before him and the phantoms stirring anew in his mind. The scenes reflected in the multiple facets blended in with those phantoms, creating a myriad collection of twisted and misremembered pictures.
“Full circle,” the Crystal Dragon muttered again. “Asss if a door to the passst had opened up . . .” The gleaming eyes narrowed to little more than slits as the drake lord became further enmeshed in the visions. “A door open . . .”
In the sphere, a storm began to rage.