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An epic battle of the ages, a team forged in fire, and a quest that will determine the fate of the world. In a world shaken by the war between the Necromancer and the Lifemage, four unlikely heroes must unite to restore balance to the realm. Led by the reluctant Lifemage, Oris, the band of champions—including the infamous thief, Loren; tormented apprentice wizard, Ebon; and the legendary peerless warrior, Mag—must journey through the Nine Kingdoms, facing treachery and impossible odds. Can they stand united and bring down the powerful Necromancer before their world crumbles? WARNING: This story contains violence, graphic depictions of death, mentions of suicide, and strong language. Reader discretion is advised.
WARNING: This story contains violence, graphic depictions of death, mentions of suicide, and strong language. Reader discretion is advised.
Chapter One: The Heart of Darkness
Rogan gave a start. The eagerness in his Father’s face shone suddenly in his own eyes. “It is real?”
“Yes. And I know just where it is. Our enemies hold it.”
Rogan frowned. “But if they control it, why would they not—”
The Lord raised a hand, and Rogan fell silent at once. “They do not understand the power within their grasp, nor how to wield it. It shall be ours before they even realize its potential.”
Leather cracked as Rogan tightened his gloved fist. “Then point me to it.”
“I soon shall. But I have another task for you first, one that shall make the second all the sweeter. You shall destroy our enemies and secure the means to our victory in the same stroke. And how could the Lifemage ever hope to stop you?”
Upon an island in the Great Bay stood a city. Once its name had been Mardow, and it had stood for long centuries. For some centuries fewer, it had been the capital city of the nine lands of Underrealm. Since that time, it had been known as the High King’s Seat.
The capital held a strange place in the minds of its people, unique in history so far as any scholar could discover. Underrealm had had other capitals in its early years, always on the soil of one of the nine kingdoms. But the Seat was located within no kingdom, and yet it ruled over all of them. One could find citizens of all nine lands upon the island, but most held themselves citizens of the Seat first, before their ties to any other nation. Calentin rangers haggled over the price of fish with masons from faraway Idris. Heddish bards traded eloquent insults with foul-tongued sailors from Wadeland.
But the unity of the Seat had suffered a terrible blow. Five months ago, enemies had attacked the island city: the traitorous kingdom of Dulmun from the east, and blue-cloaked warriors from the west who called themselves Shades. The attackers had been rebuffed and driven away to lick their wounds, but they had done much damage in the battle.
A sorrowful malaise had settled over the city in the aftermath. Even after the invaders had been driven off, few had been willing to return to their homes. Those who did return mostly hid indoors. All were fearful that Dulmun would return to try again, or that the Shades would. No matter that armies had been sent to reinforce the city. Folk who had seen their homes and shops burned, who had seen their neighbors cut down in the street in front of their eyes…those sights were not easily banished.
The High King, Enalyn, had solved the problem the best way she knew how: by pouring a frankly ridiculous amount of money into the pockets of everyone who dwelled there.
Enalyn thought it had been a wonderful bit of governing, considering how popular it had made her with her people. Her detractors held the opinion—privately, in most cases—that it had been a terrible bit of statecraft, considering how it had incensed those who already had enough money and power to spare.
And there were some who had come to the Seat to claim ownership of buildings they had never seen before. There was a promised bag of gold, after all, and they believed it was theirs for the taking. The real owners felt differently. Property disputes kept her magisters busier than they had been in some years. But at least such arguments were something to do—and Enalyn cared very little who won, so long as the victor put their money into rebuilding as they were supposed to.
Her constables, too, were busier than they had been in a long while, wrangling those who thought to catch an easy purse and flee the Seat. The jails these days were full of frauds.
And on this late afternoon, the city was abuzz with activity.
She rode now on a white palfrey through the streets of the city, her palace fading from view behind her. At her right hand rode her son, Eamin, the Lord Prince. To her left was the captain of the palace guard, Kris, their lone arm holding their reins no less skillfully than a rider with two. Behind her was Asbeth, a dwarf and a weremage—a shape-shifting wizard who was useful in detecting any impersonator who had designs on Enalyn’s life.
A small squadron of other guards rode behind, all of them new to Enalyn. Only Kris and Asbeth had been well-known to her before the Seat was attacked. The rest of her guard had died in that battle. Kris assured her that each of the new guard were carefully hand-picked and even more carefully scrutinized than had been normal before the attack.
Enalyn turned her attention to the construction in the streets all around. Many buildings were under repair, burned timbers pulled away and new ones nailed in, shattered shingles replaced. Other buildings had been too badly damaged to leave up, and they were now being rebuilt. But everywhere Enalyn rode, all activity ceased. Workers stopped as they recognized her, all of them standing speechless at the sight of her white horse and gleaming armor, and her train of guards following in her wake.
Enalyn could spot the people who had once been soldiers: they saluted with fists over their hearts. The rest bowed their heads or bent at their waists, averting their gazes from her.
No matter their reaction, hers was the same: a genial smile and a wave of the hand, the sight of which was somewhat lost on those whose noses were pointed towards the ground.
The people might have been less awestruck and more fearful if they knew the reason for her hurried ride through the city. Enalyn was painfully reminded of the day of the attack; another day when danger had lurked, and no one who dwelled here had seen it coming.
“Should we be ordering an evacuation, Your Majesty?” asked Eamin, frowning.
“Absolutely not,” said Enalyn. Her voice was quiet, and her smile never wavered. “Our people are clinging with broken fingernails to the hope that the Seat is safe once more. I will not shatter that illusion unless I know I have no other choice.”
Eamin looked skyward as though in prayer. She was gratified he had the decorum not to disagree with her out loud. But clearly, he knew something, or he thought he did.
“I value your counsel, as always,” said Enalyn.
“I said nothing.” But he smirked as he spoke.
“Your silence said much. Tell me, then. What has happened?”
Eamin tossed his head. “The entire point is that we do not know exactly what has happened. Until we do, I would feel more comfortable if you were not riding straight towards the disturbance.”
Her bodyguard, Kris, turned their dour mouth toward a frown. “A sentiment with which I entirely agree.”
“And yet again I will ignore it,” said Enalyn. “I am aware we do not know exactly what has happened. What do we know?”
Enalyn could not quite hear it over the sounds of the city, but she was certain Eamin sighed. “The Mystics were preparing the next shipment of artifacts. It is the largest group we have sent so far, and it holds most of the artifacts remaining on the Seat. But the shipment is…misbehaving.”
Enalyn looked over to him as they rode. He did not meet her gaze. “Elaborate,” she said.
“That is about as exact as I can be at present. Some of the artifacts have begun to glow. Some are starting to spin. One, I am told, whistles. There is a magical field affecting them.”
“We do not know. And until we do, it may not be wise to risk your safety by—”
“The power in those artifacts, were it all unleashed at once, would be enough to level the island,” Enalyn said in an even voice.
Eamin looked aghast, but Enalyn’s casual tone was not feigned. She had ruled the nine kingdoms of Underrealm for over a decade. During that time, she had faced many great dangers. The war with the Shades might be the most dangerous to Underrealm, but it was far from the most peril she had faced personally. Even in the attack on the Seat five months ago, she had not been as close to death as at other times in her life.
At a certain point, the prospect of death lost any association with shock or fear.
“Not only would the city be destroyed,” Enalyn went on, “but the rock itself upon which we stand would sink into the Great Bay. All of us would die in an instant. Cowering in my palace would help not a whit. And it would not help our people to evacuate, trampling themselves to death in the panicked process. Therefore, until the city falls, I will act as though it intends to continue standing.”
Eamin had no reply to that. Nor did Kris. Their High King was, after all, correct.
They pulled to a stop at a stronghold of Mystic knights near the southwest corner of the Seat. The red-cloaked warriors outside the gate knelt the moment they recognized their High King. Kris and Eamin nodded as they passed by, but Enalyn gave them the brief salute of custom, a fist over her heart.
Within the building, a captain Enalyn recognized but did not recall the name of ushered her and her party quickly to a door near the southern end of the building. The door opened to a staircase leading down, and suddenly they were in the sewers of the city.
Enalyn knew enough about the sewers to know they were an ill place for a High King to linger. The city guard and the Mystics each kept their own guard beneath the city, but the tunnels were too vast and intricate to be completely watched. And in their seclusion from the open world above, criminals thrived. Smugglers, if they were crafty enough, could move unlawful goods to and from the island with relative ease. Countless other dark deeds committed on the streets could prove impossible to track down as their perpetrators vanished into the darkness below.
As Enalyn hesitated there on that lightless threshold, she realized that she was not the only one who seemed put off by the place. The beautiful face of Asbeth, the dwarf, twisted in discomfort in the dim light of the torches. He was the only wizard among them, and also the only one now looking as though a bee had stung him beneath his underclothes.
“Asbeth?” said Enalyn. “What is it?”
“I don’t rightly know, Your Majesty,” said Asbeth through a thick Heddish accent. Enalyn knew it thickened further when he was distressed. “There’s some kind of powerful magic here. Something I’ve never felt.”
Eamin frowned. “We are making for a secret grotto that once belonged to the family Yerrin. Doubtless they used to smuggle magestones through it.” He spat in the tunnel corner. “Mayhap the foul rocks left some of their residue behind.”
Asbeth shook his head, his brow furrowing deeper. “I’ve seen those stones before. They don’t make you feel anything like this.”
Enalyn gave her son a wry look. “What is it you keep repeating? ‘We do not know exactly what is happening.’? Speculation will only get us so far. Let us go and take a look instead.”
“Duty commands me to interject once again, Your Majesty,” said Kris. “Let me take three of your guard to investigate the disturbance. I will look into it personally and send one of them as a runner to bring you any news. You need not risk yourself.”
“And impulse commands me to respond once again, Lord Kris,” said Enalyn, giving them a tight smile, “that I wish to see to this matter in person. Your concern is noted and, as always, duly appreciated. Lead the way, Captain.”
It seemed the Mystics had scouted these tunnels well since driving the Yerrins out of them. The Mystic captain—what under the sky was his name?, wondered Enalyn—led them unerringly around every twist and turn until Enalyn was quite lost. But before long, the smell of salt water, which had briefly left them in the sewers, returned to her nose once again. Soon after that, the Mystics led them into the grotto.
The passage dropped them into the cavern from the northeastern end. There it opened up onto a wide, rocky shelf that ran along the north wall of the cavern, curving around to end in a short cliff overlooking the water. Into that promontory had been built a dock. A ship waited there: the Petrel’s Wing. There were few swifter vessels in Enalyn’s fleet, and this one had served her well in recent months as a transport.
Even from the cavern entrance, Enalyn could see that the reports about the magical artifacts had not been exaggerated. A multicolored glow erupted from the deck, flaring and waning and bathing the rock walls with light. Over the sound of lapping water, she could just hear the rattling of items spinning and bouncing about in their crates, mixing with the strident voices of guards and Mystics arguing with each other about what to do.
Sky above, prayed Enalyn, let this be nothing. A simple matter, easily solved. Let me not fail them.
No one could know if the sky heard such prayers. But so far beneath the earth, Enalyn felt more ignored than usual.
She kept it from her expression. A calm face kept others calm, in her experience.
“When did it start?” said Enalyn.
“About six hours ago,” said the Mystic captain.
“And has it changed?” said Eamin. “Has it gotten worse, or lessened with time?”
The captain hesitated. “If there have been changes, they have been too subtle for us to perceive,” he said at last. The corner of Enalyn’s lips twisted for just a moment. The captain’s desire to give only a truthful report kept him from giving a simple No. That was no terrible thing in itself. But it told Enalyn that when speed was vital, he might hesitate for a moment too long.
She filed the thought away for later. What was his dark-damned name? she thought again, but no answer surfaced.
Enalyn strode quickly down the stony path, ignoring the clenched jaw of Kris and her other guards. She climbed up the gangplank to the deck, whereupon the guards all fell silent and saluted, and the Mystics bowed their heads.
“Is it possible it is being caused by some particular artifacts being in proximity to each other?” said Enalyn. Now she had to raise her voice to be heard over the rattle and hum of the artifacts.
“No, Your Majesty,” said Eamin. “They were stored together elsewhere in the city before they were brought here. And they were here for hours before this all started.”
“We can assume someone is causing it to happen, then,” said Enalyn.
“How could they, Your Majesty?” said the Mystic captain.
“More to the point than ‘how’ is ‘why.’ Have you touched any of them?”
The Mystic captain looked at one of his red-cloaked fellows, who shook her head. “No, Your Majesty. We did not know if it was safe.”
“It most certainly is not,” said Enalyn. “Yet none of this is safe. Who will volunteer to hold one? Mayhap that amulet there.”
The same Mystic who had spoken saluted. “It would be my honor, Your Majesty.”
She went to the amulet Enalyn had pointed out and scooped it up. Almost at once, she winced and gave a hiss of pain through her teeth. Everyone on the ship drew back, but the Mystic shook her head.
“It is all right,” she said. “It is only hot to the touch. Not quite like a kettle on the fire, but not far from it.”
“Not hot enough to light the boat ablaze,” mused Enalyn. “But then why?”
Eamin looked to be at a loss, as did Kris. Behind them, Asbeth’s brow was a mass of wrinkles.
“Whatever it is, I hope it won’t last forever,” muttered the dwarf. “Every wizard on the Seat must have a headache, with the aura these things are giving off.”
Enalyn froze. Eamin saw it, and he frowned.
“Asbeth,” said Enalyn. “Is it worse here? Is the aura stronger here than when you first entered the tunnels?”
“Dark below, yes,” said Asbeth. “It’s like an ice pick in my skull.”
Enalyn turned to Eamin. “If someone wanted to find the shipment…”
Eamin’s eyes shot wide.
A blast of light, and an explosion of sound. Everyone on the ship ducked low on instinct, then turned to look at the cavern entrance.
Blazing fire raged there for a moment before subsiding. The guards at the entrance had been caught in the blast. Those who had not incinerated had been flung into the cold waters below.
Through the empty entrance stepped a group of figures. They wore clothing of grey and cloaks of blue.
Enalyn’s blood ran cold as she recognized the uniforms of Shades.