Cover design by Clarissa Yeo.
A letter to the surviving kings, counts, and knights of Britain:
I am Malahan Pendragon, the bastard son of Mordred, himself the bastard son of Arthur Pendragon, the High King of all Britain.
You know the grievous disasters that have befallen our fair isle. My father betrayed my grandfather, and perished upon the bloody field of Camlann, alongside many of the mightiest knights and kings of Britain. Before that came the war of Sir Lancelot’s treachery and the High Queen’s adultery, a war that slew many noble and valiant knights.
Now there is no High King in Britain, Camelot lies waste, and the pagan Saxons ravage our shores. Every day the Saxons advance further and further, laying waste to our fields and flocks, butchering our fighting men, making slaves of our womenfolk, and desecrating holy churches and monasteries. Soon all of Britain shall lie under their tyranny, just as the barbarians overthrew the Emperor of Rome.
My lords, I write not to claim the High Kingship of Britain – for Britain is lost to the Saxons – but to offer hope. My grandfather the High King is slain, and his true heir Galahad fell seeking the grail, so therefore this burden has fallen to me, for there is no one else to bear it.
Britain is lost, but we may yet escape with our lives.
For I have spoken with the last Keepers of Avalon, and by their secret arts they have fashioned a gate wrought of magic leading to a far distant realm beyond the circles of this world, certainly beyond the reach of the heathen Saxons. Here we may settle anew, and build homes and lives free from the specter of war.
I urge you to gather all your people, and join me at the stronghold of Caerleon. We shall celebrate the feast of Easter one final time, and then march to the plain of Salisbury, to the standing stones raised by the wizard Merlin.
The gate awaits, and from there we shall march to a new home.
Sealed in the name of Malahan Pendragon, in the Year of Our Lord 538.
The day it all began, the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when the blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban returned to the town of Dun Licinia.
He gazed at the town huddled behind its walls of gray stone, his left hand gripped tight around a long wooden staff. He had not been here in over five years, not since the great battle against Mhalek and his horde of orcs, and then Dun Licinia had been little more than a square keep ringed by a wooden wall, an outpost named in honor of the Dux of the Northerland.
Now it was a prosperous town of four thousand people, fortified by a wall of stone. Ridmark saw the towers of a small keep within the town, alongside the twin bell towers of a stone church and the round tower of a Magistrius. Cultivated fields and pastures ringed the town on three sides, and the River Marcaine flowed south past its western wall, making its way through the wooded hills of the Northerland to the River Moradel in the south.
Ridmark’s father had always said there was good mining and logging to be had on the edges of the Northerland, if men were bold enough to live within reach of the orc tribes and dark creatures that lurked in the Wilderland.
And in the shadow of the black mountain that rose behind Ridmark.
He walked for the town’s northern gate, swinging his staff in his left hand, his gray cloak hanging loose around him. When he had last stood in this valley, the slain orcs of Mhalek’s horde had carpeted the ground as far as he could see, the stench of blood and death filling his nostrils. It pleased him to see that something had grown here, a place of prosperity and plenty.
Perhaps no one would recognize him.
Freeholders and the freeholders’ sons toiled in the fields, breaking up the soil in preparation for the spring planting. The men cast him wary looks, looks that lingered long after he had passed. He could not blame them. A man wrapped in a gray cloak and hood, a wooden staff in his left hand and a bow slung over his shoulder, made for a dangerous-looking figure.
Especially since he kept his hood up.
But if he kept his hood up, they would not see the brand that marred the left side of his face.
He came to Dun Licinia’s northern gate. The wall itself stood fifteen feet high, and two octagonal towers of thirty feet stood on either side of the gate itself. A pair of men-at-arms in chain mail stood at the gate, keeping watch on the road and the wooded hills ringing the valley. He recognized the colors upon their tabards. They belonged to Sir Joram Agramore, a knight Ridmark had known. They had been friends, once.
Before Mhalek and his horde.
“Hold,” said one of the men-at-arms, a middle-aged man with the hard-bitten look of a veteran. “State your business.”
Ridmark met the man’s gaze. “I wish to enter the town, purchase supplies, and depart before sundown.”
“Aye?” said the man-at-arms, eyes narrowing. “Sleep in the hills, do you?”
“I do,” said Ridmark. “It’s comfortable, if you know how.”
“Who are you, then?” said the man-at-arms. He jerked his head at the other soldier, and the man disappeared into the gatehouse. “Robber? Outlaw?”
“Perhaps I’m an anchorite,” said Ridmark.
The man-at-arms snorted. “Holy hermits don’t carry weapons. They trust in the Dominus Christus to protect them from harm. You look like the sort to place his trust in steel.”
He wasn’t wrong about that.
Ridmark spread his arms. “Upon my oath, I simply wish to purchase supplies and leave without causing any harm. I will swear this upon the name of God and whatever saints you wish to invoke.”
Three more men-at-arms emerged from the gatehouse.
“What’s your name?” said the first man-at-arms.
“Some call me the Gray Knight,” said Ridmark.
The first man frowned, but the youngest of the men-at-arms stepped forward.
“I’ve heard of you!” said the younger man. “When my mother journeyed south on pilgrimage to Tarlion, beastmen attacked her caravan. You drove them off! I…”
“Hold,” said the first man, scowling. “Show your face. Honest men have no reason to hide their faces.”
“Very well,” said Ridmark. He would not lie. Not even about this.
He drew back his cowl, exposing the brand of the broken sword upon his left cheek and jaw.
A ripple of surprise went through the men.
“You’re…” said the first man. He lifted his spear. “What is your name?”
“My name,” said Ridmark, “is Ridmark Arban.”
The men-at-arms looked at each other, and Ridmark rebuked himself. Coming here had been foolish. Better to have purchased supplies from the outlying farms or a smaller village, rather than coming to Dun Licinia.
But he had not expected the town to grow so large.
“Ridmark Arban,” said the older man-at-arms. He looked at one of the other men. “You. Go to the castle, and find Sir Joram.” One of the men ran off, chain mail flashing in the sunlight.
“Are you arresting me?” said Ridmark. Perhaps it would be better to simply leave.
The first man opened his mouth again, closed it.
“You think he made the friar disappear?” said the younger man, the one who had mentioned his mother. “But he’s the Gray Knight! They…”
“The Gray Knight is a legend,” said the first man, “and you, Sir…” He scowled and started over. “And you, Ridmark Arban, should speak with Sir Joram. That is that.”
“So be it,” said Ridmark.
A dark thought flitted across his mind. If he attacked them, he might well overpower them. Their comrades would pursue him. Perhaps they would kill him.
And he could rest at last…
Ridmark shook off the notion and waited.
A short time later two men approached and spoke in low voices to the first man-at-arms.
“You will accompany us,” he said.
Ridmark nodded and walked through the gates of Dun Licinia, the men-at-arms escorting him. Most of the houses were built of brick, roofed with sturdy clay tiles, making it harder for an attacker to set the town ablaze. Ridmark saw men at work in their shops, making shoes and hats and aprons to sell to the nearby freeholders.
A memory shivered through him. The last time he had stood here, he had been wearing plate and chain mail, the sword Heartwarden blazing with white fire in his fist, the ground carpeted with slain men and orcs and halflings and manetaurs.
He pushed aside the memory and kept walking, his staff tapping against the cobblestones.
The men-at-arms led him to the main square, fronted on either side by the sturdy stone church and the small castle. They walked through the castle’s gates, across the dusty courtyard, and into the keep’s great hall. It had changed little since his last visit five years ago.
Though this time dying and wounded men did not lie on rows upon the flagstones of the floor.
The men-at-arms instructed him to wait and left.
Ridmark rolled his shoulders and walked towards the dais, his staff a comfortable, familiar weight in his left hand. A few motes of dust danced in the beams of light leaking through the windows. Tapestries on the wall showed scenes from the court of the first High King on Old Earth, of Lancelot and Galahad questing for the cup that had held the Dominus Christus’s blood. Others showed more recent wars, the High King Arthurain fighting against the urdmordar, or the Dragon Knight leading the armies of the High King against the Frostborn.
Idly Ridmark wondered what would happen if he simply tried to walk out of the keep.
Perhaps the men-at-arms would kill him.
The doors opened, and Sir Joram Agramore entered the hall.
He had always been heavyset, but now he verged towards the plump. Peace, it seemed, agreed with him. He had curly red hair and bright green eyes, and wore a long tunic and a mantle, a sword and dagger at his belt.
He stared at Ridmark in silence for a moment.
“Ridmark Arban,” he said at last. “God and all his saints. I was sure you had died five years ago.”
Ridmark shrugged. “Perhaps God still has work for me.”
“He must,” said Joram. “But I was sure…the Magistri always say that Swordbearer severed from his Soulblade wastes away. Or kills himself. It just…”
“If grief,” said Ridmark, “could kill a man, I would have died long ago.”
His left hand tightened against his staff, and he glanced at his hand before he could stop himself. A ring glinted on his finger, the gold still bright despite the five years he had spent wandering the Wilderland. Memories burned through him at the sight of it, good memories, happy memories.
But those memories ended in death.
“Indeed,” said Joram. “Forgive me, I did not mean to…I wish…” He sighed and shook his head. “I am not sure what to say to you.”
“A knight strives to be courteous to all men,” said Ridmark, “and there is no protocol for greeting a disowned exile and former Swordbearer.”
“Alas,” said Joram, “no.”
Ridmark felt a twinge of pity for his old friend. Joram had always been a solid knight, but not man to take the lead in a crisis. “Then tell me of yourself. You are the Comes of Dun Licinia now?”
“No, just a caretaker, I fear,” said Joram. “The old Comes died in the winter without any heirs, and the Dux sent me north to oversee the comarchate until he appoints a new man.” He shrugged. “It is quiet enough. The occasional band of pagan orcs or beastmen, but nothing like the days of Mhalek.”
“You are wed?” said Ridmark. He did not want to talk about Mhalek.
Joram grinned. “How did you…oh, yes, the ring. Yes, four years. You remember Lady Lydia?”
Ridmark laughed. “You talked her around at last?”
“Well, I imagine my new lands helped sway her father, at least,” said Joram. “But, aye, we are happy. Two children, so far. God, but they can fill a castle with their wailing!”
Joram took a deep breath. “If you will allow me to say so…I am glad to see you, Ridmark. What happened to you was unjust, and I think Tarrabus Carhaine forced the Master to expel you from the Order. It was unjust, especially after what happened to Aelia…”
“What is done is done,” said Ridmark. He did not wish to discuss Aelia, either.
“Indeed,” said Joram. “Ridmark, I must ask. Why have you come here? You were disowned and banished from the Order, not exiled from the High King’s realm…but you must know that the Dux Tarrabus still has a price on your head.”
“Only the High King,” said Ridmark, “can pronounce a sentence of death.”
“I think Dux Tarrabus disagrees,” said Joram.
“He can think whatever he likes,” said Ridmark. “I simply wish to purchase supplies and be on my way.”
“Back into the Wilderland?” said Joram.
A hint of pity went over Joram’s face. “Still seeking prophecies of the Frostborn?”
“Aye,” said Ridmark.
“Well,” said Joram, “at least let me resupply you from my own pantry.”
Ridmark lifted an eyebrow. “Dux Licinius might not approve.”
“He has forgiven you,” said Joram. “He never blamed you for what happened to Aelia.”
Ridmark said nothing.
“And if you like,” said Joram, “think of it as repayment. For not beating me black and blue when we were squires, the way Tarrabus and his lot used to do.”
Ridmark bowed. “If you must.”
“I insist,” said Joram, clapping his hands. The servants’ door by the dais opened, and a pair of halfling women wearing Joram’s colors entered the hall, carrying a tray of food and drink. They set the tray on the table and bowed. One of the halfling women glanced at Ridmark for a moment, her eyes like disks of amber in her face, and then left with the other servant. He was always struck by how alien and ethereal the halflings looked.
“Please,” said Joram, “sit, sit. You’re as lean as a starving wolf.” He grinned. “Though I fear I indulge too much at the table, and must confess to gluttony every week.”
“There are worse things,” said Ridmark, sitting across from Joram, “than gluttony. One never knows if there will be food tomorrow.”
“A wise man,” said Joram.
Ridmark ate. Joram did set a good table. There was bread with honey, dried fruit, and even a few pieces of leathery ham. He listened to Joram discuss his children and the various problems of governing Dun Licinia.
“Offering me hospitality,” said Ridmark, “will get you in trouble with Tarrabus Carhaine.”
“Tarrabus Carhaine can…” said Joram, and stopped himself. “I am sworn to the Dux of the Northerland, not the Dux of Caerdracon. If my liege the Dux Gareth Licinius has a problem with my actions, I am sure he will inform me in short order.”
“It might get you into trouble with your wife,” said Ridmark. “She never did like me.”
“That concerns me more,” admitted Joram. “But a knight is supposed to be hospitable. And that duty might cause me more…difficultly, I fear.”
“Just from me?” said Ridmark. “As soon as we finish, I am returning to the Wilderland. I could very well never return.”
He had not expected to return the first time.
“Not from you,” said Joram. “From a different, more…troublesome guest.”
“How is he a troublesome guest?” said Ridmark.
“I lost him.”
“And the Dux,” said Joram, “will be upset if I cannot get him back.”
“What kind of guest?” said Ridmark.
Ridmark frowned. “A noble from the Three Kingdoms?”
Joram shook his head. “No. Well, he was at one time, but no longer. This dwarf insisted upon baptism. He joined the Order of Mendicants and became a friar, taking the name of Caius, after Saint Caius of old.”
Ridmark stopped eating to listen. “A peculiar story. I have been to the Three Kingdoms…”
Joram blinked. “You have?”
Ridmark nodded. “They accept the High King, but they are devoted to the gods of the Deeps, the gods of stone and water and silence. I would not expect a dwarf to enter the Church.”
“This one has,” said Joram. “Brother Caius came here with the idea to preach to the pagan orc tribes of Vhaluusk and the Wilderland.”
“A fool notion,” said Ridmark.
“He left the town two days ago,” said Joram, “and has not been seen since.”
“Then he is likely dead,” said Ridmark. “This part of the Northerland is relatively safe, but it is still dangerous to travel alone. And the orcs of the Wilderland pray to the blood gods, and their shamans wield black magic and blood spells. A mendicant who tries to preach the faith to them will find his head upon a spear.”
“I fear you are correct,” said Joram.
“And,” said Ridmark, “you want me to find him, don’t you?”
Joram sighed. “Am I truly so transparent? Of course, you were always the clever one.” He shook his head. “The Dux’s letter said I was to treat this Caius with all honor. And if he has gotten himself killed in the Wilderland…”
“The Dux can hardly blame you for that,” said Ridmark.
“Nevertheless, I was his host, and he was my guest,” said Joram.
“Very well,” said Ridmark. “I will find him for you.”
Joram blinked. “That’s it? I thought you would take more convincing.”
“Why not?” said Ridmark. “The dwarf seems valiant, if foolish, and does not deserve to die alone in the Wilderland. I will either find him and bring him back to you, or tell you of his fate.”
Or die trying.
“Will that not take time from your…other task?” said Joram. “The search for the Frostborn?”
“Haven’t you heard?” said Ridmark. “The Frostborn are extinct.” He knew better, but continued speaking. “Joram, you were always a friend to me, and you have shown me kindness now. I know you wished to persuade me…but I have been persuaded. I will find Brother Caius for you.”
And, perhaps, he would find his death. But that did not trouble him. He had ranged over the length and breadth of the Wilderland, following the long-dead urdmordar’s prophecy of the Frostborn, following the warning the undead dark elven wizard had given him…and he had defeated every foe he had faced in that time.
But perhaps hunting for this strange dwarf would kill him.
And then, at last, he would have peace.
“Thank you,” said Joram. “You will have whatever help you require.”
“Good,” said Ridmark. “This is what I need.”
An hour later Ridmark walked to Dun Licinia’s northern gate, staff in his left hand, gray cloak hanging from his shoulders, and a pack of fresh supplies on his back. The men-at-arms he had confronted earlier gave him wary glances, but Ridmark ignored them. He stepped through the gate and gazed north, at the flowing River Marcaine, the cultivated fields, the tree-choked slopes, the narrow road…and the great dark mass of the Black Mountain. A mile tall, the Black Mountain stood like a dark fist thrusting from the earth. The high elves of old had considered it cursed, along with the orcs and the beastmen and the halflings and the manetaurs and every other kindred to cross through the lands that became the High King’s realm of Andomhaim.
And Brother Caius had gone to that mountain, intending to preach the word of the Dominus Christus to the orcish tribes living in its northern foothills.
Ridmark shook his head, half in admiration, half in annoyance, and started walking. The road lead to the ruins of the Tower of Vigilance, burned during the civil wars of the Pendragon princes fifty years past. It was a logical place for Caius to make camp, though bandits or orcs or other renegades might have taken shelter in the ruins.
He kept walking, and the fields began to thin out, patches of bristly pine forest appearing here and there. Ridmark supposed hardly anyone took the road north. Dun Licinia was the very northern edge of the Northerland, and beyond lay the vast Wilderland, with all its unknown lands and dangerous creatures.
Only a madman or a fool ventured into the Wilderland.
So Ridmark kept walking.
He stopped, left hand tightening around his staff.
A stocky middle-aged man in the rough clothes of a freeholder climbed onto the road, his face red with anger. He carried a spear, its head worn but still sharp. The man held his weapon competently, but it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Ridmark to swing his staff and break the freeholder’s wrists.
Instead he said, “Have I wronged you in some way?”
“You’ve been taking my pigs,” said the freeholder.
“I have not,” said Ridmark.
The freeholder sneered. “Aye, you have. I’ve seen you lurking in the woods, snatching my pigs when my back is turned. Outlaws, I knew it! Sir Joram’s constable wouldn’t listen to me. Well, they should have listened to Peter of Dun Licinia! I have captured an outlaw! You will come with me now…”
Ridmark sighed, stepped forward, and thrust his staff. It caught the spear just behind the head, and sent the weapon tumbling. Peter’s eyes went wide, and Ridmark rested the end of his staff on the freeholder’s throat.
“Or,” said Ridmark, “you could admit that I did not steal your pigs, and let me go on my way.”
“Or that,” said Peter.
Ridmark frowned. “How many pigs have been stolen?”
“Five. Prime hogs, too.”
“When did this start?” said Ridmark.
“Two days ago,” said Peter.
Ridmark nodded. Caius had departed Dun Licinia two days ago. Had the dwarven friar gone bandit?
Or, more likely, whatever had killed and eaten Caius was now stealing and eating Peter’s hogs.
There were far worse things than pagan orcs in the Wilderland.
“Your pen,” said Ridmark. “Show me.”
Peter’s eyes narrowed. “So you can steal my hogs?”
“God and his saints,” said Ridmark. “It’s a pigpen. If I wanted to find it, I suspect I could just follow my nose. But I think I know what’s been stealing your pigs…and if it’s not stopped, it might start eating your family.”
That got Peter’s attention. “Some horror from the Wilderland? An urvaalg?” He swallowed. “An urdmordar, as the Swordbearers of old faced?”
Ridmark had faced an urdmordar ten years past. It was not an experience he wanted to repeat, but he doubted one of the great spider-devils was stealing Peter’s pigs. “Perhaps. Lead on.”
Peter nodded and led Ridmark off the road, through a patch of pine trees, and to his farm. A low wall of field stone enclosed perhaps thirty pigs of varying size, their hides marked with a brand. A half-dozen young men, ranging from twelve years to Ridmark’s age, busied themselves with various tasks. Peter’s sons, no doubt.
Ridmark walked in a circle around the stone pen, ignoring the ripe smell. He examined the muddy ground, noting the mosaic of footprints and hoof marks around the pen.
Some of the tracks led away from the freehold, towards the forested hills.
“What are you doing?” said Peter, following him. “It’s mud! Do you think…”
Ridmark lifted his staff, the length bumping against Peter’s chest.
“Hold still,” said Ridmark, still looking at the ground.
“Why?” said Peter. “You’ll…”
“If you move,” said Ridmark, “you’ll disturb the tracks.”
“Hold still,” said Ridmark.
He followed the tracks leading away from the pen. The land was churned into wet spring mud, with hundreds of footprints, but Ridmark had spent years wandering the wilderness. Given that his meals often came from whatever he had been able to shoot with his bow, he had grown quite good at tracking.
Hunger was a marvelous teacher.
He saw the tracks of three men and two pigs leading into the woods. To judge from the state of the tracks, he suspected the thieves had been here no earlier than midnight. Were they simply common highwaymen, raiding the local freeholds? Perhaps they had taken Caius hostage, and hoped to sell him for a ransom…
Ridmark picked up a slender thread from one of the tracks. It was a long black hair, thick and tough. He lifted it to his nose, sniffed, and tossed it aside.
“What is it?” said Peter, “What have you found?”
“You should arm yourself, master freeholder,” said Ridmark, “you and all your sons. Orcs from the Wilderland have taken your pigs.”
“Orcs?” said Peter.
“Do exactly as I tell you,” said Ridmark, pointing his staff at the freeholder. “Arm yourselves, and keep watch over your fields. And send someone to Dun Licinia to warn Sir Joram. Do you understand?”
Peter nodded and shouted instructions to his sons, and Ridmark drew his cloak about him and walked into the woods, following the trail of the orcs and their stolen pigs.
Calliande opened her eyes.
She saw nothing but utter blackness, felt nothing but the cold stone beneath her back, its chill soaking through her robes. She took a deep breath, her throat and tongue dry and rough. Something soft and clinging covered her face and throat, and she tried to pull it off. But her shaking hands would not obey, and only after five tries did she reach her face, her fingers brushing her cheek and jaw.
She could not see anything in the blackness, but she recognized the feeling of the delicate threads she plucked from her face.
Cobwebs. She was pulling cobwebs from her jaw.
A wave of terrible exhaustion went through her, and a deeper darkness swallowed Calliande.
Dreams danced across her mind like foam driven across a raging sea.
She saw herself arguing with men in white robes, their voices raised in anger, their faces blurring into mist whenever she tried to look at them.
A great battle, tens of thousands of armored men striving against a massive horde of blue-skinned orcs, great half-human, half-spider devils on their flanks, packs of beastmen savaging the knights in their armor. Tall, gaunt figures in pale armor led the horde, their eyes burning with blue flame, glittering swords in their hands.
The sight of them filled her with terror, with certainty that they would devour the world.
“It is the only way,” she heard herself tell the men in white robes, their faces dissolving into mist as she tried to remember their names. “This is the only way. I have to do this. Otherwise it will be forgotten, and it will all happen again. And we might not be able to stop him next time.”
She heard the distant sound of dry, mocking laughter.
A thunderous noise filled her ears, the sound of a slab of stone slamming over the entrance to a tomb.
“It is the only way,” Calliande told the men in white robes.
A shadow stood in their midst, long and dark and cold, utterly cold.
“You,” whispered Calliande.
“Little girl,” whispered the shadow. “Little child, presuming to wield power you cannot understand. I am older than you. I am older than this world. I made the high elves dance long before your pathetic kindred ever crawled across the hills.” The shadow drew closer, devouring the men in the white robes. “You don’t know who I truly am. For if you did…you would run. You would run screaming. Or you would fall on your knees and worship me.”
“No,” said Calliande. “I stopped you once before.”
“You did,” said the shadow. “But I have been stopped many times. Never defeated. I always return. And in your pride and folly, you have ensured that I shall be victorious.”
The shadow filled everything, and Calliande sank into darkness.
Her eyes shot open with a gasp, the cobwebs dancing around her lips, her heart hammering against her ribs. Again a violent spasm went through her limbs, her muscles trembling, her head pulsing with pain.
Bit by bit Calliande realized that she was ravenous, that her throat was parched with thirst.
And she was no longer in the darkness.
A faint blue glow touched her eyes. She saw a vaulted stone ceiling overhead, pale and eerie in the blue light. The air smelled musty and stale, as if it had not been breathed in a very long time.
She pressed her hands flat at her sides, felt cold, smooth stone beneath them.
On the third try she sat up, her head spinning, her hair falling against her shoulders.
She lay upon an altar of stone, or perhaps a sarcophagus. The altar stood in the center of a stone nave, thick pillars supporting the arched roof. The blue light came from the far end of the nave, near an archway containing a set of stairs.
Calliande sat motionless for a moment, listening to the silence.
She had no idea how she had gotten here. Nor, for that matter, did she know where she was.
And, with a growing sense of panic, she realized she could not remember who she was.
Calliande, her name was Calliande. She knew that much. But the details of her past turned to mist even as she tried to recall them. Shattered, broken images danced through her mind. Men in white robes, warriors with eyes of blue flame, armies of blue-skinned orcs…but all of it slithered away from her grasp.
Something, she realized, had gone terribly wrong.
“They were supposed to be here,” she whispered, her voice cracked and rasping. “They were supposed to wait here.”
She didn’t know.
Her panic grew, her hands scrabbling over the altar’s stone surface. After a moment she realized that she was looking for something. A…staff? Yes, that was it. A staff.
Calliande looked around in desperation, her panic growing.
“They were supposed to be here,” she said again.
But through her fear, her mind noted some practical problems. She was alone in a strange place, her stomach was clenching with hunger, and she was so thirsty her head was spinning. Despite whatever had happened to her, she could not remain here and wait for someone to find her.
Calliande took a deep breath, braced herself on the edge of the altar, and stood. Her boots clicked against the stone floor, and her legs felt as if they had been made of wet string. Yet she did not fall, and after a moment she took a step forward.
Something brushed her left arm and fell to the floor.
She looked down at herself and saw that she wore a robe of green trimmed with gold upon the sleeves and hems, and the left sleeve had fallen off, exposing the pale skin of her arm. Once it must have been a magnificent garment, but now it was worn and brittle, the seams disintegrating. The leather of her belt and boots was dry and crumbling, and the few steps she had taken had already split her right boot open.
The clothes looked centuries old.
Her fear redoubled. Was she dead? Had she been buried alive?
Another part of her mind, the cold part that had urged her to find food and water, pointed out that a dead woman would not feel nearly as hungry as she did. Had not the Dominus Christus eaten food in front of his disciples to prove that he was not a spirit?
Whatever had happened to Calliande, she was still alive.
But she needed to take action to stay that way.
She crossed the nave, her boots crumbling further with every step. A thick layer of dust covered the floor, and she glimpsed more cobwebs stretched between the heavy pillars supporting the ceiling. No other footprints marked the dust. It was clear that no one had entered this chamber in a long time. Soot stained the pillars, and here and there Calliande saw piles of burned wood that had once been furniture.
Had this place caught fire?
She saw the first bones after that.
Three skeletons lay in the dust nearby, clad in rusted armor, swords and maces lying near their bony hands. She saw the marks of violence upon their bones. Plainly a battle had been fought here, long ago, and it had been followed by a fire.
How long had she been lying in this place of death?
Calliande reached the archway at the far end of the nave. A skeleton lay slumped against the stairs, clad in the ragged remnants of a robe.
A white robe.
She remembered the image from her dream, and reached to touch the bones.
As she did, the blue light brightened, and a specter appeared on the stairs.
Calliande took a step back in alarm, but the specter made no move to harm her. It looked like an old man in white robes, his head encircled by a tangled mane of gray hair, his eyes deep and heavy and sad.
“Forgive me, mistress,” said the specter.
“You can see me?” said Calliande. “Who are you?”
“Forgive me, for we have failed in our sacred charge,” said the specter. “The Tower of Vigilance is overrun. The warring sons of the old king brought their foolish quarrel here, and the Tower is taken. I wished us to remain neutral, but the others thought differently…and our Order has paid for it.”
“Answer me!” said Calliande. “Who are you? Why am I here?”
But the specter kept talking, and Calliande realized it wasn’t really there. Or, rather, it was not a spirit or a ghost. Rather, it was a spell, a final message to her.
Left by the man whose bones now lay moldering at her feet.
“I have no doubt they would kill you simply out of spite,” said the old man, “and I have my suspicions of the darker forces behind the strife. But I have activated the defenses of the vault. Sealed it from the inside.” He took a deep breath. “Only you can open it.”
“But that means…” said Calliande.
That meant the old man had sealed himself inside the vault.
And to judge from the skeleton, he never left.
“Do not mourn for me,” said the old man, “for my course is run. I am wounded unto death.” She saw the spreading crimson stain across his white robes, and realized that he had been wounded. “You will be safe here, until you awaken.”
He closed his eyes and shuddered with pain.
“Mistress, I beg, listen to me,” said the old man. “You were right. You were always right, and I should have listened to you as a young man. This war between the Pendragon princes…no, it did not occur on its own. They were manipulated into it. Mistress, beware.” His voice grew thicker, his breathing harsher. “The bearer…the bearer of the shadow. You were right about him, too. This was his doing. Everything has been his doing…and he has been laboring in the darkness for centuries before Malahan Pendragon raised the first stone of Tarlion itself. Mistress, please, beware…he will come for you…he…”
The specter vanished into nothingness.
And the blue glow faded.
With a surge of alarm Calliande realized the glow had been part of the spell. And now that the spell’s message had been delivered, the light would fade away.
Leaving her alone in the darkness.
“No!” she said, her voice echoing off the walls.
The blue light faded away a moment later, leaving her in utter blackness.