In book two of the War of the Staffs trilogy, vampire lord Taza continues to weave intense dark spells in a demonic attempt to find the missing piece of the Staff of Adaman and bring the magical world of Muiria under his evil control. Taza uses a dark warlock named Melgor to find and destroy Taza’s nemesis, the great Wizard Celedant, who accompanies Prince Tarquin, the prophesied savior of the world, on a dangerous quest to find the missing Staff piece, encountering horrific attacks by earthly and inhuman assailants.
The adventurers who are desperately seeking the lost Staff piece successfully bring together supporters that include elves, dwarves, humans, and other races who join forces to save their beloved world. Against the backdrop of the raging conflict, tender romance begins to blossom between pure-hearted souls who find each other in the midst of a war-torn landscape and mythical quest.
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Taza relaxed on his black onyx throne, drinking a goblet of deep red wine laced with blood, as he mused over the loss of the dwarvan city of Brackus and the other schemes he had devised that had not gone the way he had hoped they would. Even though the city had suffered considerable damage and vast numbers of enemies were dead, his attacks against Celedant, Dragon Isle, and the dwarves had been miserable failures. Obviously, the beasts he had summoned from the void to attack his enemies were not powerful enough, which meant he would have to spend more time within that desolate dark nothingness to find others who would be.
He was also less than pleased with the minions he had to work with on this planet. With the exception of Melgor and Sellis, the Warlocks' Council was reluctant to become involved in global warfare, preferring to sit back on their magical backsides and observe. Well, Taza had news for them. Once his army of vampires held complete dominance over the races of the continent, the council would either play by his rules or join the ranks of his underlings under the subjugation of the Illanni, the first – a race of dark elves –to accept his offer of undead life. Only then would the world be safe.
Taza rested his head against the back of his throne. All this plotting, planning, and fuming had given him a headache. It was late. Tomorrow was another day. Closing his eyes against the pain, the vampire decided to retire as he thought fondly of his darkened bedchamber and the comfortable bed waiting for him. However, as he stood to leave, the Staff of Adois began vibrating, gently at first, but then harder and harder. Puzzled, Taza exerted his will to control the staff, but found it impossible, even with his vampiric strength. A moment later, his vision blurred and his stomach churned as something ripped him from this reality and threw him into another. When his vision returned, he found himself standing in a vast, unknown hall.
The room was unadorned expect for row upon row of polished black marble columns. Taza estimated the room to be over a hundred paces long. As his gaze fastened on the distant wall, he saw an elaborate, white marble throne with carvings and shot through with veins in three shades of brown. Precious jewels were set into the eyes of mystical beasts, including vampires, chimera, basilisks, ogres, orcs, and numerous other dark creatures. A luxurious deep-red carpet six feet wide stretched the length of the room to a magnificent throne. Seated upon a pure white cushion made from unicorn hide was a beautiful woman who beckoned him to come closer. Curious, he moved toward her, the staff making no noise as it struck the carpeted floor. The silence was complete until he reached his destination and drew in a breath. Without knowing how, he realized that the woman motioning to him was the Goddess Adois.
As Adois reclined, she nibbled on a slice of juicy orange fruit. She wore a low-cut, white-silk gown that accentuated the curves of her shapely body. Taza smiled. His fangs were visible as he strutted up to her, the Staff of Adois firmly clutched in his right hand. This was the goddess who had rescued him from the Void, brought him to Muiria, and set him upon his present task. If anyone could help him defeat the races of light, it was she. The undead warlock, however, was suffering from delusions of grandeur. He did not see Adois as his mistress but as an equal, and he did not bow to his patroness as he came to a stop before her. Goddess or not, she was female, and after being betrayed and imprisoned by his own mother, Taza had little respect for the fairer sex.
The deep black, cat-like eyes of Adois stared at the proud vampire. She could read the contempt in his mind. His aloofness was obvious in every cell of his body. Never before had another being, other than a fellow deity, approached her thus. Adois had expected the meeting to be tense, but Taza was proving to be tougher to handle than she had anticipated. Finishing the fruit, the goddess licked her fingers and then tucked her long black tresses behind her ears. Smoothing her clinging silk dress with a motion of her hand, she struggled to regain control of her temper. Otherwise, she would have struck him dead on the spot, and that would not do, not if she wanted Muiria back in her control.
Taza bowed his head in the briefest nod. "Madam Adois, I am here as you requested."
Adois' hands tightened on the arms of her throne as she thought, This is what I chose to be my champion? That statement echoed in her mind, fueling a fire that burned in the pit of her stomach. Her voice was honey sweet, but as she spoke, it filled with granite determination.
"I plucked you from the Void and gave you life and the means to conquer a planet, yet you address me as Madam?"
"I mean no disrespect," Taza replied, but the sneer on his face revealed otherwise.
"I did not ask you to come. I commanded. You may wish to believe the little fairy tales you spin for the Illanni, but I assure you, you are nothing compared to me!"
Taza jauntily leaned against the staff. "The Staff and I have bonded, and we are one. You poured your magical abilities into its creation, but now it is mine to use as I wish." His smile was wide, prominently displaying fangs still stained from the blood-laced wine he had drunk earlier.
Adois became calm, chastising herself for reacting to the words of such an insignificant worm. She leaned back, hidden mockery in her voice as she responded. "Such is true, Lord Taza. I have summoned you to discuss what progress you have made in my brother's world."
Taza waved away the question. "There have been a few unforeseen but not insurmountable difficulties. It is hard to judge how races will evolve or react. Still, things are progressing, thanks to a number of grasping fools, greedy to share in the spoils. Yet, I must deal with powerful enemies that seek your brother's staff. Even if they find it, they will not be able to master it. Then I will have both rods of power, and Muiria will be mine."
Adois shook her head like a mother about to scold a young child. "Fool! My brother's staff is an artifact of light made by his hands, unlike mine, which was crafted by a warlock I highly favored. But I should expect such words from a pawn like you." Her tone and response raised Taza's ire. "Let me assure you. Regardless of if they find my brother's staff or not, I expect results, and my patience wears thin."
"We have more than enough time to see to our goals," Taza answered, ignoring the dangerous tone that had crept into her voice. Realizing he would get no help from her, he recklessly plunged ahead. "Don't worry your pretty little head. I will handle everything."
Adois' eyes narrowed. She had had enough. It was time to put this petty vampire in his place. Standing, she moved to within five steps of him and stopped. He watched with a bemused expression until she began to transform. Taza's arrogance disintegrated into the most gut-wrenching fear he had ever experienced as the beautiful creature before him morphed into the most monstrous thing he had ever seen.
The lovely silk dress and lithe figure became a muscular, hideous beast with skin resembling the tough hide of a rhinoceros, clothed in a heavy robe the color of blood. Her face lost its delicate features as it broadened, giving her a protruding flat brow with heavy eyebrows. Large yellow eyes with slits like a snake's and two holes where her nostrils should had been completed the distorted face. Her hair was no longer the long silken tresses it had been. It became a short cap of bristly white fur. Her hands and feet stretched into cruel claws with long fingers and toes that ended in six-inch nails capable of slitting a person open as efficiently as the sharpest blade, and wicked curving horns protruded from her head. Her smile turned Taza's insides to water. She opened her mouth and roared her displeasure, which sent his robes flapping; her vampiric fangs gleamed wickedly, as did all the razor-sharp teeth in between. "You foul, insignificant little worm," she sneered in a voice that had lost its honey sweetness to become deep and guttural. "Your small mind cannot begin to comprehend that vampires were created from a higher being and are thus accountable to me. Look upon the visage of your goddess!" She pointed to the staff and using the tiniest portion of her power, sent a surge of energy through it, cramping and twisting every muscle in his body. An unbearable agony tortured Taza, making all the others he had experienced seem like a scratched finger. His neck constricted so tightly that choking sounds emerged from his lips as his eyes grew larger, and the bones of his body bent and broke one by one, driving the once-proud vampire to his knees.
"You will do my bidding," Adois growled, "or suffer the tortures of the damned for eternity! And no one will dare rescue you this time."
Taza blacked out from the pain, and when he regained consciousness, he found himself lying in a fetal position on the stone floor of his tower, surrounded by four of his personal guards. Unable to speak for the moment, the guards took their stricken lord to his chamber and settled him into bed with a drug-laced goblet of wine.
The next morning when Taza awoke, his bones were once again whole, thanks to the vampire's ability to heal quickly. The fear that he had experienced at the hands of his goddess, however, still lingered around the edges of his psyche. When young, he had wondered how the first vampire had come into being, but since no one knew, he had let the matter slide from consciousness. Now that he knew who she was, there was no doubt in his mind that if he did not succeed in conquering this world and turning it from a place of light to one of darkness, the centuries he had spent in the void would seem like a pleasant interval compared to what Adois would do to him.
Rising, he ordered his guards to bring two victims to his chambers, and he drained them to restore his strength, motioning the guards to remove their corpses. A new determination formed in his mind. He would find a way to beat the races of light and drive them into a subservient existence under his rule. He would destroy Celedant and Tarquin along with anyone else who dared to resist him, even if he had to bring forth every dark creature that lurked in the void to do it.
When Morganna joined Tarquin, Celedant, and the dwarves in their quest for the last piece of the Staff of Adaman, she added to the unusualness of such a mixed group. Celedant befriended the solemn, formerly dark elf and often took her into his confidence. When introducing her to the others, Tarquin had assured them that had she not appeared when she did during the battle, her vampire cousin, Despres, would have killed him. From birth, Morganna's natural coloring had always been more like a Wood Elf with long, dark tresses and deep olive green eyes, unlike her Illanni family with their platinum hair and deep black eyes. After she had accepted her quest from the dwarvan god, Dolgar, her transformation, both physically and mentally, was completed. Although Morganna had been born Illanni and lived as such for hundreds of years, she was now a true Wood Elf.
With the rebuilding of Brackus well underway and the fortifications to the underworld improved, constantly manned by vigilant dwarves, General Grimilzor proclaimed that the city proper was safe and ready for habitation. At first, while the army celebrated victory and mourned their dead, no one but the civilians that had followed the army had access to the city.
Grimilzor proclaimed a distant removed relative of the long-dead Lord Brackus as regent of the city. The new Lord of Brackus commanded a force of 5,000 dwarves and 2,500 human Parthian lancers to defend the city. Even though the dwarvan command believed that the horrible losses suffered by the local orcan tribes made the area reasonably safe, they wanted to assure a long and peaceful stay for the dwarves and settlers heading north to repopulate the city.
After the new regent took command, General Grimilzor ordered the rest of the army to ready themselves for the long march home. It would be a slow, careful march back to the dwarvan capital of Nars. Soldiers headed south while long lines of heavily loaded wagons meandered north, clogging the roads. The prospect of working the long lost mines and new territory prompted many adventuresome dwarves and Parthians to undertake the trip to the Brackus to seek their fortunes and a new start in life.
After escaping their harrowing experience in the tunnels, Donli and Count Eldahir, Commander of the elven army in the south and son of Celedant's long-time friend, General Orthorion, finally reached Brackus and began looking for the wizard. The tall, handsome Wood Elf had received orders from his father and Queen Elornith to help the wizard in his quest, while making certain that the Staff of Adaman did not fall into the wrong hands.
The wizard and the company occupied a suite of rooms above the entrance hall, and Eldahir had no trouble finding Celedant's chamber. Diffused morning light filtered through deep shafts cut into the mountain, illuminating the hall and room above through a broken stone lattice where the wizard and his companions had fought their desperate battle to open the city's gates. He crossed the hall, noticing the scattered remains of orcish occupation and the darker stains of blood that marred the floor.
Soon he found himself striding along a carved hallway, which contained an etched and painted mural that had once been quite beautiful. He was dismayed that the orcs had defaced such a work of art with their crude carvings. Even his olive-green, elven eyes could appreciate the master artisanship of the dwarvan masons and painters. However, it had always been the orc's innate nature to despise all objects of beauty both animate and inanimate. Beauty was a head on a spike to that ill-bred race.
Halfway down the corridor, a solitary dwarf stood guard at what Eldahir saw had once been a secret door in the defaced mural. At this time, the doorway stood open, guarded by the small wary dwarf with a black beard, wearing the gray uniform of the Borderers.
The elf stopped in front of the dwarf. "I'm in search of Master Celedant. Is this where he is staying?"
The dwarf looked suspiciously at him and nodded. "Who wants to see him, might I ask?"
The elf smiled. "Tell him, Lord Eldahir of the Elven Court."
The dwarf eyed him suspiciously before slipping into the inner chamber, leaving Eldahir in the room to examine the remaining latticework that had survived the awesome power that only a wizard of Dragon Isle could possess.
Before long, a white-robed man with deep blue eyes, looking far younger than he ought to for a human his age, appeared and bowed to the elf. "Count Eldahir, please forgive my friend, Botreg. He is one of the most suspicious dwarves I have ever known. Yet, his alertness saved us many times, during our trip through the underworld."
Celedant led the elf into the next chamber where Eldahir noticed the bedding along the walls.
"The Borderers that journeyed through the underworld with me use this room as a barracks. Come sit by the fire. It would seem that winter is approaching fast and these halls can get very cold. Please feel free to warm yourself." They seated themselves on low benches near the hearth where the wizard had brewed water for tea. He handed a cup to the elf. "What brings you to see me, Lord Eldahir?"
"Please, can we drop the formalities between us?" Eldahir replied sipping the strong brew and smiling in appreciation. "My father told me of your quest and asked that I seek you out. I would like to offer my services to get a better idea of what is happening, so I can keep him and our new Queen apprised of the situation. Though I must admit, from what I have seen thus far, I feel certain my people will want to participate in the coming battle."
"That is good news indeed." Celedant chuckled. "I learned recently of the murder of your king and queen, a heartbreaking and cowardly act to be sure. Please send my condolences and well wishes to the young queen."
"Thank you. I will."
"Orthorion was chomping at the bit to accompany me on this mission. Since he could not, the old dog has sent his son instead. I fear he will forever plague my footsteps. But in all seriousness, I welcome your assistance and agree that what we face affects all races."
Excerpted from "Wraith Lords of Zeiglon"
Copyright © 2017 Steve Stephenson & K.M. Tedrick.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
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