Kedryn, the young prince prophesied the sacred Book of Kyrie, has led the Three Kingdoms to victory over the barbaric northern Hordes commanded by the demonic Taws, the fire-born Messenger of the war-god Ashar. But victory had a terrible price. Kedryn was blinded by an ensorcelled sword in his hour of triumph.
Now he must journey into the abode of the dead, accompanied by his beloved Wynett, on a perilous quest to confront the shade of the warrior who wielded the blade. In Kendryn's absence, Taws the Messenger rises again, using his terrible magic to foment bloodshed and rebellion among the Kingdoms.
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The taste of defeat was bitter, the more so for being both unknown and unexpected. The might of the Horde he had raised was broken against the stones of the Lozin Gate, the creature he had lifted up to lead it slain by a near-beardless youth, the creature he had sent to slay that youth himself destroyed. He could not understand it, for his master had promised victory and the promise of the god Ashar was as sure as the fires of his birthing; yet it had come: the Kingdoms stood intact.
In bitterness he retreated into the forests, leaving the barbarians to their own devices, to sue for peace or flee, he no longer cared: the promises he had made them in the name of his master meant nothing, for they had failed him. And yet, even in the chagrin of his rout, he saw that a purpose still remained–the youth, the one called Kedryn Caitin, must be destroyed. He did not properly understand the significance of the young man, knowing only that Kedryn had somehow stood against the ensorcelled sword of Niloc Yarrum, had somehow escaped the berserk fury of Borsus, thus confirming the instinctive suspicion that he was, in some inexplicable way, a greater obstacle than all the armies mustered in defense of the Kingdoms. While he still lived Ashar's purpose must stand in threat of thwarting, and while that menace should exist so must his own existence stand in danger. He must find a way to bring about his master's design.
He moved steadily deeper into the woodlands, traversing paths untrod by man, moving with a speed greater than human form might attain, the beasts of the forest scattering from his way as they would scatter from the encroaching breath of fire, sensing in him that which he was able to hide from man. Deeper and ever deeper he moved, until he came to that place where first he had known this life given him by his master, where Ashar's fires had first burned in the Beltrevan.
It was a silent, sere place devoid of birdsong or animal life. The trees were not grown back where his birthing fire had scorched the ground, nor any undergrowth. Rather, it was a place that denied natural life, the earth still hidden beneath a thick layering of ash undisturbed by spoor or seeding, nubs of flame-scorched timber like rotted tooth stumps, the rock itself glass-smooth as cooled magma.
Ashar was here. He could feel the presence of the god, and he felt a chill touch of dread.
He shed the furs that had hid his frame from human sight and stood in unhuman nakedness, knowing what he must do yet fearing the wrath of his master, that fear stoking the hate he felt for Kedryn Caitin and the folk of the Kingdoms and the blue-robed followers of Ashar's enemy. He nursed the hate, letting it kindle until it burned fiercer than the dread, and then his thin lips began to move, forming words impossible for human tongue to utter. He stretched out his arms, blue flame flickering about his taloned fingers, sparking and crackling, filling the stifled air with the sharp tang of ozone. The droning of his chant grew louder, and as it did the cold fire formed in his mouth, wreathing about his mantis-features as his cratered eyes blazed red as smoldering coals. Louder and higher he chanted until the silence of the burned woodland was filled with the sound, his arms raised high, his head craned back, his frame rigid. Then, abruptly, he dropped his arms, screaming a single word: "Ashar!"
The blue fire spurted from mouth and fingertips, converging, striking ground that exploded into flame, a great column of incandescence blazing red against a darkening sky, tongues of fire filling the blackened clearing, washing over him so that he shuddered with the ecstasy of the heat. Up and up rose the column until it seemed to link earth and heavens, seemed to burn down into the earth, a corridor to the netherworld from which he summoned his master.
And Ashar came, the knowledge of the god's presence sending him to his knees, head bowed lest he gaze upon that which even he feared to observe directly.
"You have failed me."
The words were thunder and lightning that blasted the surrounding pines, setting them to swaying, flame dancing over their limbs.
He groveled, prostrating himself, his mouth against the ash, his answer–his plea–spoken into the cinders.
"I did my best. I did as you bade me."
"You say the fault is mine?"
"No, Master! Never yours; but . . ."
"Excuses! Do you plead for your miserable existence? That which I have given, I can take away."
"I plead to continue your work, Master! Only that. I know these creatures better now. I know that Kyrie stands with them."
"Kyrie!" The trees growing about the great blackened patch of forest burst into flame as the central column gouted outward, fire roaring until it seemed all the Beltrevan must blaze. "You affront me with that cursed name!"
"Her power is great there." He spoke quickly, spitting ash and hatred with each word, momentarily aware that the burning that was his god could so easily reach out to take him. "And one there is who stands in our way–Kedryn Caitin. He withstood the magic of the sword and I believe he is favored of her."
"Kedryn Caitin." The thunder rumbled a fraction softer, almost ruminative. "You killed him?"
"I tried, Master, but I could not. There is power in him; enough that three times he escaped me. He lives still."
"He should not," roared the god, "and as he does, why should I not destroy you?"
"I can serve you still, Master." His clawed hands dug into the ashy soil, his malformed shape tensing in anticipation of dreadful anger. "I know them better now and if you send me amongst them again I believe I may achieve your will–so long as I destroy this one."
"What is he?" demanded Ashar, the fulguration of his voice lessened. "A priest? Does she take men under her skirts now?"
"A warrior. A youth. A princeling of Tamur, I believe; not a priest–she still calls women to her service. But she affords him her protection. He it was thwarted our purpose."
"Then he must be destroyed!" Lightning stalked the ground about the prostate figure. "This time you must not fail me."
He drew deep, ashy breath as he recognized clemency and promised, "No, Master. This time I shall not fail you."
"You have thought on this? You have a design?"
"I have. I must go amongst them. Not the forest folk this time, but the people of the Kingdoms. Where might has failed us, subtlety may prevail. I shall seek to destroy from within, not overwhelm with sword might but seduce."
"How so?" Ashar demanded, the question a rolling peal of thunder.
"There are three kingdoms, Master," came the answer, "and a lord to each. A king above them in the city they call Andurel; elected. Men are ambitious and lords lust for kingship. Should their king die . . ."
"An ambitious man might be bent to my will."
"Aye, Master. And were that man made king the youth Kedryn must obey his commands and thus fall into my hands."
"If they know you, you are lost. I cannot protect you where that bitch holds sway."
"I shall guise myself," he promised, a little more confident now. "They will not know me until it is too late. I shall bring down Kedryn Caitin and all the blue-robed whores. I swear it."
Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed from the incandescent core of the fire, then Ashar said, "Go, Taws, and fulfill that promise. Give me the Kingdoms."
He sensed the departure of the god, not daring to raise his head until the last rumblings of the thunder had long died, and then cautiously, his deep-set eyes hooded, furtive as he peered about. Flame still candled where he had created it, but now only as a fireball, no longer that column reaching into the nowhere of the otherworld. He rose, more confident now, and stalked to the center of that flame, basking in it, renewing his strength and his hope in the aftermath of Ashar's presence.
Through the final waning of the light and all the hours of darkness he remained there, until the sun rose again, shedding brightness over the looming shadows of the deep timber. Then he gestured and the flame died. He clad himself again in the furs that hid his frame and went once more from that place, about Ashar's business.
In time, as he moved steadily southward toward the Kingdoms, he encountered barbarians, scattered groups mostly, the first to flee the scene of battle, their bearded features sullen in defeat. He avoided them, unsure of the reception he might receive and unwilling to expend energy on defense, knowing that he would need all his strength for what lay ahead. Only when he had come close to the pass through the Lozins where the two forts stood did he reveal himself.
There was a solitary Caroc separated, he presumed, by dint of wounds from his tribesmen. The warrior limped, leaning heavily on the shaft of his broken spear, stained bandages about one leg, his beard blood-crusted from a savage cut across his cheek. Shield and ax were slung on his back and in his eyes was the disillusion of a belief gone down in ruin. Taws stepped from the shelter of the trees to confront him and the tribesman mouthed a curse, shaping his left hand in the three-fingered gesture of warding even as he leveled the broken spear.
"You know me," Taws said, his voice soft as a serpent's hiss.
"Taws the sorcerer!" The Caroc spat the words like a curse. "Taws the betrayer! Where did you run, mage? Where were you when the hef-Ulan fell? When Balandir died? Where are your promises now, mage?"
"With Ashar my master," Taws responded. "Where ever they were."
"Ashar has deserted us," said the warrior bluntly. "Now stand aside or test your magic against my blade."
Taws's eyes burned red at this sally, glowing as might coals set in the pit of a furnace. He made a small gesture and the Caroc's spear shaft burst into flame, eliciting a cry of alarm from the man, who threw the burning wood from him and reached awkwardly for the ax shaft jutting above his right shoulder.
His hand froze upon the leather bindings as Taws's gaze transfixed him, and he stood, rooted in the moment, his lips slackening as the mage drew closer. Taws set narrow hands upon the brawny shoulders and stared deep into the warrior's eyes. "What happened?" he demanded. "After Niloc Yarrum fell and Ymrath died, what happened then?"
"Balandir led us," murmured the Caroc, his voice dreamy, "but the Horde was divided. The Drott and the Yath resented him and the Vistral went back to the forest with Ymrath's death. Tamur, Kesh and Ust-Galich came against us and they were too many, for we argued too long amongst ourselves. Had you been there to announce Balandir hef-Ulan we might have prevailed, but you were not and the armies of the Kingdoms rode out from High Fort to defeat us. Balandir was slain and we were lost. The Kingdoms offered peace and Vran of the Yath spoke for that. He persuaded the rest. We were allowed to remove our dead and return to the Beltrevan."
Taws nodded. "And now?"
"Now the Kingdoms celebrate their victory and rebuild their fort. I know no more than that."
"It is enough," Taws murmured.
And drew the warrior close, bending to drop his head, ash-white lips descending upon the man's as the ruby eyes sparked an unholy fire. Panic flared for an instant in the warrior's eyes, then faded as the orbs dulled and the limbs fell slack. Taws released his grip and the corpse slumped to the ground, drained of more than life. The mage sighed his satisfaction and commenced his southward journey.
From the Paperback edition.