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Bastion of Darkness
The sea swelled and heaved, slamming into the rocky cliffs of the Kored-dul Mountains of western Aielle. Pounding, incessantly pounding, against the gray stone. Again and again the waves rolled in, and each time they were turned away, unable to defeat the strength, the unnatural strength, of the stone.
There was magic here, mighty enchantments, stronger than the stone or the sea. It climbed out of the very earth, rising through the sheer cliffs and up a thousand feet, to the iron fortress of the Black Warlock. Talas-dun, the castle was called, a name that struck terror--and rightly so--into the hearts of all the goodly folk of Ynis Aielle. Few had ever come here; none but a single wizard had ever returned.
Battlement after black battlement circled the massive keep, and iron spires rose into the ever gray sky, the eternal gloom that marked the Kored-dul. No craftsmen built this place, for it was not the labor of skilled hands. Talas-dun was the heart of the Black Warlock, the embodiment of the warlock's evil soul, the fortress wrought of Morgan Thalasi's magic in an age long past.
And after all the centuries, Talas-dun remained impressive, leering down from the jutting tip of a peninsula, three sides to the sheer drop to the ocean and the fourth separated from the rest of the mountain by a wide and deep gorge. A single road wound down the mountainside from the castle's lone gate, forlorn and as barren as death itself. Not a scrub or vine grew here, not a bird circled on the updrafts of these cliff faces, and none of the rodents that were so common to the mountains flitted across the stones.
For this was Talas-dun.
Morgan Thalasi's bastion of darkness.
But if a hero dared now to come close enough, if one of the other wizards of Aielle had come in to inspect the Black Warlock's legendary fortress, he would have been surprised, and at least some of the hopelessness evoked by the sight of this most evil of places might have been washed away. After more than half a millennium, Talas-dun had begun to wear. The evil that bound the monstrous bastion into a singular iron entity could not keep firm to its hold. Cracks lined the iron walls and the stone of the mountain; doors creaked on rusted hinges; a great ballistae stood useless on one tower, its drawstring rotted to breaking. And so it went throughout the structure, from the foundation to the highest tier of the highest tower.
Parapets that once thundered under the marching footsteps of a thousand talons, the evil soldiery of the Black Warlock, now sounded only with the murmurs of the sea wind, or with the occasional shuffle of a worn boot. A single shot from a weapon of another age on a battlefield halfway across the world had brought the being that had been Morgan Thalasi to a sudden and disastrous end, and the twenty years since had begun the unmistakable erosion of his legacy, of Talas-dun.
Beyond the closed drawbridge and the open courtyard, and through the massive doors of the main keep--one hang-ing loosely on a single bent hinge--the power that had once been Talas-dun lingered on in anguish, caught in a web of confusion that it could not break.
There sat the physical being that had once been Martin Reinheiser, one of the ancient ones who had come from the sea, from a past world, in the dawning of Ynis Aielle's second age. The other three men who had walked beside him then would not have recognized him now. Gaunt and pale, skin stretched beyond its limits over deep-set hollowed cheeks, and eye sockets that more closely resembled the empty holes of a skull, Reinheiser seemed something far different from the man he had once been. Something not human, something not alive.
Eyes twitched and darted, unable to find clear focus, vainly seeking to view two objects at once. One bony hand twitched uncontrollably on the stone arm of the black throne, muscle tearing against muscle until yet another garish blue-red bruise erupted, one of a dozen on this arm alone.
"Stop!" the lipless mouth demanded in a throaty voice.
"Mine!" that same mouth argued, its tone higher pitched. And so it went, hour after hour, year after long year. The being that had been Martin Reinheiser fought against itself, every move, every word, a ferocious struggle that pitted muscle against muscle.
For two wills now inhabited this single body, two powerful wills that would not relinquish control, not for a moment, to the other.
"Mine!" the higher tone argued again, the word stretched into several syllables by the trembling and twisting of the mouth. "I am Martin Reinheiser!"
A grimace of agony crossed over the face as the other will stole the mouth away.
"Get out!" the will of Reinheiser demanded. How many times had Reinheiser cried out these words, in voice and thought, since that fateful day on the distant battleground of the field called Mountaingate?
It had all been so promising, with the spirt of Morgan Thalasi joining his own, and the warlock's black gemstone, the mark of power growing through the skin of Reinheiser's forehead. What greatness might these two beings accomplish now that they had been joined?
But Thalasi was not interested in exploring the possibilities. He had shrugged off his mortal body, his dominating spirit defeating even the grim clutches of death itself, and had found a new receptacle in the nearest living being, in the body of Martin Reinheiser. And now Thalasi wanted Reinheiser out. The Black Warlock had never intended to share, had planned from the beginning to possess this body wholly. But Thalasi had underestimated the willpower of his host, and the spirit of Reinheiser still stubbornly held on.
"You get out!" Thalasi countered, his customary growling response as soon as he had wrestled control of the mouth. The hand came up from the arm of the stone throne, slapping the face hard.
Of course, they did not need the mouth to communicate. They could read each other's thoughts and emotions--they had no choice but to read each other's thoughts and emotions, fully. But the mouth had become the central battleground of their struggle, a pointed reminder of disadvantage to the opponent of he who controlled it.
The hand came up again, but the other hand shot up to intercept, locking together in wrenching grips. And all the while the opposing wills attacked at the inside, wrestling muscles from each other. More bruises appeared, more sinews ripped away, ravaging the body. The mouth opened and contorted as both sides felt the burning agony.
But even the scream came out only as a gurgle.
* * *
"He's to it again," croaked Burgle, one of the two talons standing guard outside of the Throne Room door. He rubbed a foot against the inside of one leg, scratching the lice that always managed to make a comfortable home of him.
The other guard paused to listen, then smiled wickedly at the groans of agony emanating from beyond the door.
"Always at it," he grunted back in the same guttural tone. "That one's lost 'is wits, is me guesses, an' to the ruins of usses all!"
"Blasted wizards," Burgle replied. "Promisin' the world, he does, an' can't find 'is own way outta 'is blasted chair." He eyed his counterpart slyly and grinned. "But Grok'll be fixin' that."
"An' none too soon, fer me thinkin'," agreed the other talon. "Heared he's back in the castle this day. Heared 'e's lookin' fer the boss."
"Ain't hard to find," said Burgle. "Never to be leavin' 'is room!"
Exhausted, the two entities of the Black Warlock found a long enough moment of truce to coordinate the body into a shaky walk from the throne. They stumbled to the wall, grasp-ing a worn tapestry to catch themselves as they neared the lone window in the chamber.
Why? demanded Martin Reinheiser, using internal communication now--no need to renew the fight over control of the mouth. He felt a portion of the body relax, a movement he had come to recognize as a resigned shrug from his counterpart.
Twenty years, Morgan Thalasi replied, again internally. How long will we battle before the spirit of one of us fades away or is forced out?
The body will die first, Reinheiser reasoned.
And still we will battle, Thalasi assured him. Willing the corpse into an undead state so that our struggles will have some material battleground.
Reinheiser did not doubt it for a minute. Already he could understand that their willpower would live on after death. The body should have long ago died, rarely eating and always tormented, nourished only by the strength of the minds and the hatred that refused to relinquish control.
Yet to harm you is to harm myself, sneered Reinheiser. But still I--we--fight! And ever we will! Thalasi could not disagree. He had not foreseen these problems of cohabitation of the body, had not realized the deep sense of violation that could not be resolved, or the uncontrollable battles the two beings were forced to wage. Instincts too primal to be realized guided their struggle, instincts too base for rational thinking to defeat.
Thus they were a doomed thing.
They stumbled and fell, and then crawled back to the stone throne of Talas-dun, knowing that the war was about to begin anew.
But even as the telltale trembling began, as pain became general throughout the limbs and torso, the door to the Throne Room burst open, an interruption that neither of the beings could ignore.
Together the ravaged body's eyes snapped at the figure bold enough to enter without permission. A talon walked through, unusually straight-backed and tall for one of its cow-ering race. The Black Warlock knew this particular creature's name, "Grok," though he hadn't dealt with this talon for many years. Once, though, Grok had been--and might still be--commander of Talas-dun's dwindling talon regiment. The tall talon strode defiantly up to the throne and stood before the Black Warlock.
The warlock's mouth twisted and turned, and the mouth managed to speak out the talon's name.
Grok eyed the pitiful thing for a long moment. It was a smart creature, as talons go, and it understood the weakened state of the fortress, the weakening of the power of its master. Already many of the various talon tribes of the nearby mountains refused to pay their tithes, and soon the entire region might turn openly against Talas-dun. Grok's force could not defeat such a revolution, even with the high walls of the castle surrounding them. Only the sinister reputation of the Black Warlock had thus far held the renegades in check, but the word was spreading quickly. That being, the hateful and merciless leader named Morgan Thalasi, who had once nurtured the race of talons into vast armies, was no more.
And only this pitiful thing that now sat on the throne of Talas-dun remained.
Grok would change things, here and now. Grok would put an end to the reign of the wretched human and claim the throne for the talons. As the new king of Talas-dun, he would go out from the strength of his fortress, bringing the other tribes one by one under his command.
Give me the mouth, Thalasi begged silently to the will of Reinheiser. Sensing the danger of this intrusion and realizing that Thalasi was better suited to handle talons, Reinheiser relinquished control.
"Why have you come?" Thalasi spat, but still the mouth twisted, Reinheiser unconsciously resisting.
An evil smile spread across Grok's face, a grin that promised death. "Ye're done fer," the tall talon said, its voice hissing through pointy yellow teeth. He poked a stubby finger into his chest. "Grok's boss now!" A curved, rusted blade slid out of the sheath on the tall talon's hip.
Rage bubbled within the Black Warlock, arms and legs flailing violently, slamming against the hardness of the throne.
Grok and the two guards watched the spectacle wide-eyed, Grok wondering if the Black Warlock might simply explode or beat himself to death before the talon had the chance.
The Black Warlock's fingers bled and snapped. The mouth opened wide, gurgles and indecipherable grunts coming out with streams of sputtering saliva. The whole body thrashed and slammed in the great chair.
Grok had seen enough. Its amusement turned to disgust--not an easy emotion to evoke in a talon--and it raised its wicked blade for the killing blow.
And in that instant of terror and rage, for the first time in two decades the opposing wills of Morgan Thalasi and Martin Reinheiser found complete accord. The battered muscles moved in harmony, the eyes focused on a single target, and a clear scream of primal rage and magical fury erupted.
Reinheiser felt himself falling, following the spirit of
Thalasi down into the foggy realm of magic, that other-dimensional region that the wizards of Ynis Aielle called upon for their strength. Reinheiser sensed the power tingling all about him, flowing in the natural harmony of its dance. He had no idea, though, of how Thalasi would access it.
Then Martin Reinheiser came to understand. Thalasi was the master of the third school of magic, domination. The Black Warlock reached out for the magical energy with his will and pulled it in, broke away its resistance.
Grok hadn't even begun the blow, and the talon would never get the chance. Showers of blood and gore splattered every corner of the wide room, pieces of bone and blasted flesh flew and fell like a wind-driven rain. And the talon's cloak, torn and shredded, flipped up into the air and then descended slowly, flattening to the stone of the floor, quite empty.
"'E blew up!" Burgle shrieked, barely able to find its voice.
"And what of you?" the Black Warlock roared, his voice still crystal clear and unspeakably powerful in the continuing harmony of rage.
The two guards fled from the room, slamming the door and wisely falling back into position at their appointed posts.
"Not a piece bigger'n me little finger," Burgle mumbled. His partner shuddered and nodded, praying that the Black Warlock would be satisfied with the single kill.
We must punish the others, the spirit of Thalasi mused. And leave no doubt about who is in command. He started to rise from the chair.
But the trembling had returned.
"Why do you resist?" Thalasi demanded in a shaky voice.
I do not! Reinheiser silently countered. The traitorous guards must be punished!
Still, the battered body could not find the strength to rise, as muscle worked against muscle. Both wills strained in their common desire, but the focus of crystalline rage, that singular moment of terror when the big talon had raised its blade, had dulled. Their subconscious unity was no more, whatever their conscious desires. After several torturous minutes, the form slumped back helplessly in the throne, the two surrendering their hopes to go out and punish the guards.
The pained eyes darted discordantly, taking in the mess of the room, as both spirits sought to remember that one moment of harmony, that one moment when other emotions too base for petty arguing had washed away the pain.
Do you know what this means? Thalasi pondered.
We have bought some time, reasoned Reinheiser. News will spread quickly of the fate of Grok. Others will not be so quick to try for the throne.
"I destroyed him," Thalasi sneered through the twisting mouth.
"Not you, fool," Reinheiser verbally countered, and Thalasi felt him try to turn the corners of the mouth up in a wry smile and quickly counterattacked. I have found your secret to the darker magics, Reinheiser went on, silently. I, too, heard the ringing of the universal powers. I went with you, Thalasi, into that secret realm, understood your journey as clearly as if I had made it all by myself. It was Martin Reinheiser who sent the unruly talon to its horrid grave!
"Never!" Thalasi hissed, but the words lacked conviction. Even at the height of his power, Morgan Thalasi had never been able to accomplish such complete destruction as the explosion of Grok. The energy that had ripped the unfortunate talon to tiny pieces had flowed through the broken limbs of the battered body of the Black Warlock pure and powerful.
I know that I was part of the execution, Thalasi thought, surrendering the taxing control of the mouth, a calmness sweeping over him. He had felt the power surge, familiar from the days before he had joined with Reinheiser. But although he had been part of the being that issued the explosive blast, he had been only one part.
And yet, somehow, not a part at all, as if the result of
the combination of the two spirits, joined by the threat of the talon, had been a completely new being, something greater than both of them.
Yet I know and admit that it was beyond me, Thalasi continued, asking as much as explaining.
What, then? Reinheiser prompted, equally uncertain.
Unity, Thalasi answered him. Did you feel it? Of course you felt it, and you know the truth. It was neither Reinheiser nor Thalasi that sundered the flesh of Grok.
Both, Reinheiser completed the thought.
They did not have to consciously communicate to know that they continued to entertain similar thoughts and emotions. How good that moment of power had felt! Like freedom. The promise of strength beyond anything either of them would have believed possible hovered about them, a dangling carrot.
If they could only reach out and grab it!
Snap the fingers of the left hand, Thalasi begged Reinheiser. Join me in this action.
Reinheiser willed the hand to move. It rose up in front of the face, trembling through every inch of the ascent. Both spirits ignored the pain, focused solely on the task at hand. Thumb and middle finger moved tentatively, their tips resting together.
They crossed and twisted as the arm bulged in discordant pain. Desperately trying to retrieve that moment of ecstasy, the two wills frantically pulled at the fingers, ordering them to their task. Muscles knotted and tore, a new bruise erupted in the wrist. Still the spirits fought on to accomplish this simplest of tasks. But more stubborn than their willpower was the impossibility of harmony. Despite all their efforts, the fingers trembled uselessly.
The mouth opened again in a silent scream of frustration.
"Blew 'im to little bits, 'e did!" Burgle said to the gathered crowd. "I seen it, I tell ye! Never hopin' to see it again, neither!"
"Bah, yer words is spit, is all," said another, a large, burly talon that had served as one of Grok's lieutenants and had been expecting a position of authority once Grok took care of the feeble human.
"Burgle's tellin' ye right!" cried yet another. "I seen the room. Bits an' blood liken a wars was foughted."
"Proves nothin'!" yelled the lieutenant.
"Then where's Grok?" Burgle retorted. He turned toward the tower to accentuate his next point. "An' why's the Thalasi still sittin' at home?"
A dozen misshapen talon heads followed Burgle's gaze to regard the high black wall of Talas-dun.
There would be no more threats to the Black Warlock this day or any day soon.
No use, Reinheiser thought at length. Too many actions are involved in every motion. We cannot hope to synchronize our thought patterns so completely.
Are we doomed, then? replied Thalasi. Doomed in this liv-ing hell?
So it would seem.
"No!" This time Thalasi's reply came out audibly, as his frustration momentarily wrenched the mouth to his sole pos-session. Reinheiser recovered quickly, before Thalasi could utter any more words without obstruction.
Get out! Thalasi's will demanded. The muscles of the torn body heaved to action again, took up their fight.
Reinheiser's reply caught Thalasi completely out of sorts. Always before, Reinheiser had met the challenge with equal vigor, demanding that Thalasi get out and return the corporeal body to its rightful owner. This time, though, Reinheiser issued no challenges or demands.
Are we to endure the agony of our battle again? Reinheiser asked calmly.
The will of Thalasi relented, and the body slumped back to the stone chair. It felt so good, he lamented.
The power, added Reinheiser. Never have I felt such power!
But how? Thalasi wondered.
Defense, answered Reinheiser. The critical moment, it would seem, incited emotions too powerful for the discord of our wills. The critical moment brought us harmony.
Harmony, Thalasi mused. Yes, and how wonderful it was. A moment later he sent the word back to Reinheiser once again, this time as a question. Harmony?
Reinheiser did not understand, though he sensed from Thalasi's growing excitement that an idea had suddenly occurred to his counterpart.
Harmony, Thalasi thought again, more insistently. Music.
What do you mean?
Thalasi wasn't sure if he was grasping at straws, if in his desperation false hopes were floating through his mind. Music, harmony.
Still Reinheiser did not understand.
There is a place in the loft of the central tower, Thalasi explained. A place where emotion overrides conscious thought. Help me, I beg you, to get our broken body there.
Reinheiser shut his thoughts off from Thalasi for a long moment, considering the possibilities of his counterpart's vague hints. Was this just another one of Morgan Thalasi's devious tricks? Was there a weapon up in this loft, a magic unknown to him, Reinheiser, that Thalasi could use to drive his will from his own body, to fully possess the mortal form they both now inhabited?
Help me! Thalasi pleaded. We must attain harmony; I must feel that surge of power again.
The lure was simply too great, and the alternative too grim, for Reinheiser to decline. Slowly, painfully, the body rose from the throne and stumbled to the door.
Dozens of yellow talon eyes fixed upon the crawling prog-ress of the Black Warlock, wondering how one so obviously feeble could exude such unspeakable power. But if they needed any reminders to keep them in line as the dual being that was the new Black Warlock inched his pitiful way across the stone floor of Talas-dun, all they had to do was glance through the open doors of the Throne Room.
To the gory puddle that had once been Grok.
From the Paperback edition.