Read an Excerpt
To Light a Candle
The Obsidian Trilogy, Book Two
By Mercedes Lackey, James Mallory
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2004 Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory
All rights reserved.
In the Forest of Flowers
Kellen Tavadon could never have imagined fighting a battle so one-sided as this, but he no longer had the energy to spare for despair.
Up and around the circumference of the Black Cairn he went, and as he did, the icy wind slowly increased. It seemed to Kellen as if the source of the wind was the obelisk itself, as if it blew from someplace not of this world. As if from a great distance, he could hear inhuman yelping and the sounds of battle. If he looked, he knew he would be able to watch his friends die.
But he refused to look. He could not afford to be distracted from his battle. It took all his concentration to keep his footing on the stairs. Kellen's teeth chattered uncontrollably in the cold; tears that owed nothing to grief streamed from his eyes and froze along his cheeks and lashes. He gripped Idalia's keystone hard against his stomach and prayed that it would hold together.
If he had been able to think, he would have been certain that his situation could not be any worse, and then, as a further torment, grit mixed with the frigid wind began to pelt him. Fine sand at first, that left him blinking and half-blind, but soon good-sized pieces of gravel and small rocks that hammered his skin and even drew blood. He could taste grit between his teeth, on his tongue, feel it in his nose, in his lungs, choking him. He pulled his undertunic up over his head It was hard to breathe through the heavy quilted leather, but as he heard the wind-driven sand hiss over its surface, Kellen was glad he'd buried his head in its folds. Better to be half-stifled than blind. Slowly his tears washed his eyes clean.
Soon it was not just gravel that the wind carried, but rocks the size of a fist. At this rate, he'd be dodging boulders soon. And one direct hit from anything really large and he'd be dead — and the fate of Sentarshadeen, and perhaps of all of the Elves, would be sealed.
He needed to protect the keystone as well as his eyes and lungs. Kellen quickly shoved the keystone up under his shirt, and turned toward the wall so it was protected by his body as well. The keystone was as icy against his skin as it had once been warm against his hands. He turned his face against the wall, and crept even more slowly, up the stairs. The sand made them slippery, and he knew Something was hoping he'd fall and break the fragile keystone.
At least the howling of the wind and the booming of the rocks against the stone shut out all sound of the battle below. If it was still going on. If all his friends weren't dead already.
I won't look back, Kellen promised himself. Whatever happens, I won't look back.
It was so unfair for the enemy he faced to be throwing rocks at him! Unfair — no, it wasn't so much that it was unfair. It was humiliating. The Enemy wasn't even going to bother wasting its Demon warriors on stopping him; he wasn't an Elven Knight, after all. He wasn't any sort of a real threat. He meant so little to the Enemy that the Enemy thought it was enough to batter him with a few rocks, certain that he was so cowardly, so worthless, that he would turn tail and run.
That, as much as all the pain and despair, nearly broke Kellen's spirit.
Only his anger saved him.
Anger is a weapon, as much as your sword.
"I'll — show — you!" he snarled through clenched teeth. And went on. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, blind, aching, terrified, but now, above all else, furious, he drove onward.
Then came the worst part — when the wind and rocks began hitting him from all sides. Kellen realized that must mean he was near the top of the cairn. Groping blindly, his head still muffled in his tunic, he slid his hand along the wall in front of his face, until he touched emptiness. The wind pushed at his fingertips with the force of a river in flood If he tried to simply walk up to where the obelisk was, the wind would pluck him off and hurl him to the ground.
Very well. Then he would crawl.
Kellen got down on his hands and knees and crawled up the rest of the stairs, brushing the sand away carefully from each step before him. It caked on his abraded hands, and every time he wiped them clean on his tunic, fresh blood welled up from a thousand tiny scratches. And the wind still blew, cold enough now to steal all sensation from his flesh.
He reached a flat place, and crawled out onto it, pushing against the wind.
Suddenly, without warning, the wind stopped. The silence rang in his ears.
"Well, you make a fine sight," a man said from somewhere above him, sounding amused.
The voice was elusively familiar.
Kellen dragged his tunic down around his neck and stared, blinking, into the watery green light.
He was facing ... himself?
Another Kellen stood on the other side of the obelisk, grinning down at him nastily. The point of the obelisk came just to his heart level. This Kellen was sleek and manicured — no one would ever call his smooth brown curls unruly! — and dressed in the height of Armethaliehan finery, from his shining half-boots of tooled and gilded leather to his fur-lined half-cape and the pair of jeweled and embroidered silk gloves tucked negligently through his gleaming gilded belt. The cape and gloves were in House Tavadon colors, of course. No one would ever forget which Mageborn City House this young man belonged to, not for an instant.
Slowly, Kellen got to his feet, though his cramped and aching muscles protested. Instantly, Other-Kellen clapped his bare hands over the point of the obelisk, blocking Kellen's access to it.
"Think about what you're doing," Other-Kellen urged him. "Really think about it. Now, before it's too late. You've had a chance to taste freedom, and you've found it's a bitter wine. Only power can make it sweet, but you already know the responsibilities that power brings. Even the powerful aren't really free. The only real freedom we have is of choosing our master, and most people don't get even that. But you can choose."
"I don't serve anyone!" Kellen said angrily.
"Oh? And you a Wildmage," Other-Kellen said mockingly. "I should think you would have learned better the moment you opened the Books."
Kellen snapped his mouth shut abruptly. If this was a fight, he'd just lost the first battle. He did serve the Wild Magic, and so far he'd done exactly what it told him to do. How free did that make him?
"You've made some bad choices in the past," Other-Kellen continued smoothly. "Even you're willing to admit that. Wouldn't you like the chance to undo them? To start over, knowing what you know now? You can have that. Few people get that opportunity."
Other-Kellen smiled, and for the first time, Kellen could see his father's face mirrored in this stranger's that was his own. The sight shocked and distracted him, even in this moment and in this place. Assurance ... competence ... or just corruption?
"You left Armethalieh because you rebelled against your father's plans for you, but you know better now, don't you? Arch-Mage Lycaelon only wants for you what he has always enjoyed himself! And that's not so bad, now, is it? What does it matter if it takes a bit of groveling and scraping, and a lot of boring make-work to get there? Think about how you used to live — and how you live now. The life of a High Mage has its compensations — and the High Mages were right, back when they walled themselves off in their city. They were right to want to build safeguards against the prices and bargains the Wild Magic required," his doppelganger said, his voice as silken and sweet as honey, reasonable and logical. Kellen himself had never sounded like that. "What's so wrong with trying to improve something? They still practice magic, and they do so without the prices that the Wild Magic demands. They give their citizens a good life — and if life in the Golden City is too restrictive, well, when you're Arch-Mage, Kellen, you'll be able to make all the changes you've dreamed of."
That shocked Kellen so much that he almost dropped the keystone. Of all of the things he had imagined and fantasized about, that was never one that had occurred to him!
"And you can be Arch-Mage," the double said, persuasively. "You have the gift and the talent; your father isn't wrong about that! If everyone must serve, then choose your service. Serve the City. Go back now, beg your father's forgiveness — it won't be that hard Give up the Wild Magic. That won't be hard, either, will it? Step back into the life you should have had, and work for the good of Armethalieh. You'll have everything you wanted. Just think of all you can do for the City when you return ..."
Kellen stared in horrified fascination at his doppelganger. Was this really him? The person he could have been — or could still be?
If he did this, could he even turn the City to help the Elves, and forge a new Alliance as in the old days?
But Jermayan would know what had happened —
Shalkan surely would —
"Your companions are already dead. You have no one to consider but yourself. No one will know what happened here but you. Isn't it time you did what you want, for a change? Here is your future, Kellen." His doppelganger leaned forward, his face wearing a mask of pleasantry, his voice eager, urging. "You have but to reach out and seize it. And you will receive nothing but praise for your actions."
Now Kellen looked away, down toward the plain below, but everything below the top of the cairn was covered with a thick layer of yellow-green fog. It was as if the rest of the world had vanished. Quickly he looked back at his doppelganger, suspecting a trick, but Other-Kellen had not moved.
His doppelganger smiled at Kellen sympathetically, as if guessing the direction of Kellen's thoughts.
"But if you go through with this foolish adventure, your future will be set. If you think you have troubles now, you can't even begin to imagine what your life is going to be like afterward — assuming you don't die right here. Think of the Demons. They know your name, Kellen. The Queen and Prince of the Endarkened know who you are. They know all about you, and they'll find you wherever you go. You won't have an easy death, or a quick one. Torment — oh, for them, it is the highest form of Art, and they have had millennia to perfect it. You won't die, but you will long for death with all of your being. For years, Kellen, for years ..."
Other-Kellen shuddered in mock-sympathy, his eyes never leaving Kellen's face. Kellen's face. Kellen trembled, remembering his nightmares, knowing they must have fallen far short of the truth.
"Oh, you might survive triggering the keystone. You might even manage to get back to Sentarshadeen alive. And I'm sure your friends the Elves will do their best for you. But it hasn't really been much of a best so far, has it? They couldn't even manage to save themselves without a Wildmage or two to help. And when it comes right down to it, they're going to take care of themselves and their families first once the trouble starts, aren't they?
"I wouldn't say we're friends, exactly but I would say I'm the closest thing to a friend you've got. Right here. Right now. Think about it, Kellen. This is your last chance. After this, you have no choices left. Think. Use what you've learned. They've all tried to keep the truth from you so you wouldn't know what the stakes are. Think how hard you've had to work to find out what little you have. Why is that? So you wouldn't know enough to make a fair choice," Other-Kellen said.
Fair, Kellen thought bitterly. Nothing about this is fair. Nothing had ever been fair and out in the open, from the moment he'd found the three Books in the Low Market, and hearing all his secret fears and unworthy hopes in the mouth of this manicured popinjay was the least fair thing of all.
He remembered Jermayan telling him about The Seven — how when they'd faced down the Endarkened army at the pass of Vel-al-Amion and first beaten them back, the Endarkened had tried to seduce them to the Dark
As one of the Endarkened was trying to seduce him now. This, then, was their last line of defense, and the most compelling of all.
"Well ..." Kellen said, walking closer and lifting the keystone in his hands as if he were about to hand it over. "I guess I really ought to be smart and do what you say."
The Other-Kellen smiled triumphantly and relaxed, certain of its victory.
"But I'm not going to!" Kellen shouted.
He brought the keystone down — hard — on the doppelganger's hands. It howled and recoiled as if it had been burned, jerking its hands back from the point of the obelisk.
And in that moment, it ... changed.
The Other-Kellen was gone. In its place stood a Demon.
It — she! — towered over Kellen, her wings spread wide. He caught a confused glimpse of blood-red skin, of horns and claws, but she was barely there for an instant, for in the moment that the Demon had released her hold on the obelisk, Kellen slammed the keystone down over the tip of the stone.
The instant the keystone touched the obelisk, the Demon howled in fury and vanished, her cheated rage a whiplash across his senses. For a moment he was blind and deaf in a paroxysm of pain. He cringed, but kept his hands on the stone.
They had not counted on his experience with being lied to. And perhaps that was the greatest weapon Lycaelon Tavadon had given to him.
I know a lie when I hear it, you bastards! His father had lied to him so smoothly, so convincingly, and so often, that Kellen had learned every guise that a lie could wear.
Kellen trembled all over, realizing in that moment how close the Demon had come to winning. But it hadn't.
Now it was up to him. Despite everything he had already gone through, the hardest part was still to come. Hardest — and yet, in its way, the easiest. All he had to do was surrender — surrender his will, surrender his power, and put it all in the service of something far outside himself.
He took a deep breath and reached down into the keystone with his Wildmage senses, touching the power waiting within. The power leaped toward him eagerly, but Kellen knew that he was not to be its destination. Gently he turned it toward the obelisk.
He felt the obelisk's resistance, and pushed harder, adding the last of his strength and all of his will to the keystone's power, forcing the link into being.
One by one, the obelisk's defenses gave way. Kellen felt the triggering force begin to rush through him and into the obelisk. He kept his palms pressed against the keystone's sides; without him to maintain the link, the spell would be broken before the Barrier was breached And all of it — the journey, the others' sacrifice — would all have been for nothing.
And his body spasmed, convulsed, his mouth going open in a silent scream.
This was worse than anything he could have imagined He felt as if he were being struck by bolt after bolt of lightning, a torrent of energy that somehow went on and on and on, searing its way through him.
His hands were burning. Holding the keystone was like clutching red-hot metal fresh from the forge, and there was no respite, no mercy. He could smell the pork-like scent of his cooking flesh, could feel blood running down his wrists as blisters swelled up and burst, and then, in a thunderclap of agony, the fire was everywhere, coursing through his veins with every beat of his heart.
Kellen howled unashamedly, great wracking sobs of hopeless agony. And he held on. Perhaps it was stubbornness, but he had always been stubborn. And he would not give the Demons this victory.
Then came a single thought, emerging through the fire and the pain.
I'm going to die.
He realized at that moment that this was the price of the spell, the rest of the cost. It must be. A Wildmage's life. Idalia must have known when she created the spell that the price of casting it would be the life of the one who triggered it. His life. Kellen felt a flash of pride in his sister at keeping the painful secret so well.
But he would have to consent. No Wildmage could give up that which belonged to another — not without turning to the Dark.
She had known the price of the magic, but she could only have hoped he would pay it. Well, he wasn't going to let her down. He would be everything she had hoped And if he had been an uncouth barbarian to the Elves of Sentarshadeen, at least he would be an uncouth barbarian whose name would live on in their legends forever.
If that's the price, he shouted silently to the Powers, then I will pay it! I wish I didn't have to, but I swear I pay it willingly and without reservation!
Excerpted from To Light a Candle by Mercedes Lackey, James Mallory. Copyright © 2004 Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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