To Entertain, To Educate, To Inspire

An Epic Fantasy Excerpt

The following work is Copyright 1987, 1991, 1995, 2001 by Robert B. Thomas. All Rights reserved.
No portion of this fictional excerpt may be used for any purpose without express written permission from the author.
This excerpt represents the opening chapters of a serial novel, of which six books out of seven have been written.
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CAUGHT BETWEEN destiny and the way of the world, heir to a personal heritage of power reaching back thousands of years, reincarnation of her world's greatest sorceress, Darlene knows nothing of the powers she once held, the powers she will hold again.

BUT OTHERS know, and not all of them wish her well. Pursued by ruthless enemies, she struggles to make sense of an increasingly unforgiving situation. To wield the power that can avert a devastating war, she must rediscover the forgotten secrets of a lost civilization, and time is running out.


Part One - A TEST OF WILLS

Chapter One
A horse-drawn carriage clattered past Darlene, but she paid it no mind. Spotting a Knight in the crowd had reminded her about her brother yet again. Routine maneuvers, he said in his letters. He promised he would be home soon. She wanted to believe, but each week it became more difficult. As her doubts grew, fed by the sameness of Brian's letters, she spent more time worrying, which caused others to worry. Not even Mama's assurances could put her fears to rest.
Pedestrians surged around her. Sounds floated through her awareness: footfalls, a murmur of voices, the clatter of another carriage rolling across the cobblestone. They all whispered of Brian, of danger in the desert, of war.
A sharp elbow to the ribs jarred her senses. She turned to find her partner, Fanny. "What's wrong, Dee? You've been standing here for ten minutes!"
Darlene sighed. "Sorry."
Fanny studied her, then looked away. "All right. I'm getting hungry anyway. Let's head back to the guild, huh?"
Darlene nodded. They turned toward the late afternoon sun, which glared off the whitewashed buildings rising three or four stories to either side. Fanny's purse jingled as they walked, full of the day's gains.
Darlene hated pickpocket duty. She chose the marks and distracted them; Fanny did the stealing. Darlene tried to pick marks who could afford the loss, but her judgement sometimes failed and she knew it. Just one more year, she kept telling herself. One more year and Mama would get her a better assignment. Stealing from fat merchants was more her style, not this preying upon unsuspecting citizens.
She might be a thief, but she had some Merit.
Thinking of Merit reminded her of her brother. What kind of maneuvers lasted for months in the desert? Papa said not to worry, but the more he said it, the more she worried.
That was Mama's influence, she knew. Every day, Mama lived with the dangers Papa faced while policing the streets as a Sergeant of the Watch. Mama paid attention to details, and anything out of place tended to worry her.
Fanny said, "Dee? You've been quiet all day."
Darlene shrugged. "I'm all right."
"What did he say?"
"His letter didn't come."
"Oh."
Darlene quickened the pace. Brian's letters had been late before, she told herself. Still, if one had come, Mama would know, and Darlene longed to find out. The news, if any, would be waiting in Mama's chamber at the guild.
In the Thieves Guild, Mama held the rank of Master, one of only nine. Darlene expected to follow in her path.
When Darlene had joined the guild last year with her friends, Gayla and Maleri, she expected to work with them. Instead, she was paired with Fanny, older than her by a few years but not as ambitious. Fanny was all right - stupid about men, but smart otherwise. With no real friends, Fanny became part of Darlene's circle, hungry for attention and acceptance.
Fanny said, "I like this new territory. It's much better than old Cactus Street." She jingled their work purse and smiled gamely. "We'd do even better if you marked a few knights now and then, though."
Darlene glared at her.
Fanny looked away. "Well, all right. I guess we make enough, huh?" She jingled the purse again. "Plenty of wealthy marks in this district. Plenty."
Darlene sighed.
Half Street, which circled through the city, overflowed with brightly clad Nervinians. Riders and carriages moved among the pedestrians, keeping to the middle of the road.
Darlene studied golden-brown faces, almost all framed with black hair. As hairstyles implied meanings of station, she often chose her marks on that basis. Men wearing short, well-trimmed beards escaped her attention, for such style marked them as Knights of Merit. All Knights wore silver badges on the left front shoulder, one for each Merit in which they were proven; but Sir Knights also trimmed their beards in knightly fashion, making them easier to spot.
Darlene worked for months to convince the guildmasters, especially Mama, to give them this section of Half Street. Now she could afford to overlook all the knights.
Such pickiness made no sense to Fanny, but Darlene refused to yield, so they left the knights alone. Fanny wanted approval too much to bicker.
As they neared the end of their territory, Darlene noticed the set of Fanny's shoulders. Fanny always perked up when attracted to a young man. Darlene shook her head and kept walking, wishing she could take interest as easily as her friend.
As the thieves moved through the crowd, Darlene wearing leathers, Fanny a white blouse and full-length brown skirt, they drew the eyes of many young men, almost all focusing on Darlene. She endured the stares because drawing attention away from Fanny, who did the stealing, was how she made her living. This happened even when they weren't dressed for their roles, thanks to Darlene's golden-blond hair.
The people of Nervinia were a dark-haired, tan-skinned race, and few of their kind differed from the norm, at least physically. Darlene's blue eyes alone would brand her an outlander - a woman of northern blood - if not for the golden-brown tone of her skin.
Darlene had learned to wear dark clothes, even in the summer, to turn the contrast between her face and hair to her advantage, one of Mama's tricks. Mama had more savvy than any three people. Darlene, more than her sisters, had inherited Mama's beauty and grace and strength of will.
Not yet twenty, Darlene felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny of so many eyes - yet another reason she hated pickpocket duty. Not that she felt insecure with her looks, nor that she wished to be left alone - she deeply longed to be married - but for her, it was not that simple.
Fanny reveled in the attention, eager to flirt with every suitor. "Hey, Dee," she hissed, elbowing Darlene in the ribs. "I think that Knight is following us!"
Darlene glanced over her shoulder.
Fanny squeaked in alarm. "No, don't look! Ohh."
Darlene ignored Fanny's protest. She focused on the Knight and met his dark gaze. For a moment, hope flared in her heart; but then it died and she turned away. He was not the one.
Fanny eyed her expectantly. "Well?"
Darlene shook her head and started walking. "You're hopeless, Fanny. Hopeless."
"Oh, come on, Dee. Isn't it time you lived a little bit?" She gave a wistful sigh. "Men are wonderful. Oh, Dee, if you knew what you were missing..."
Darlene shrugged, trying to contain the longing that threatened to consume her. Why couldn't Fanny accept her explanation? Why couldn't she understand, like Gayla did? That man was not for her. End of discussion.
She remembered the day, seven years ago, when a boy had tried to touch her. She had felt good for a moment, but then it had gone wrong. She tried to tell him, to explain, but he did not understand, so she tried to get away, but he didn't let go fast enough and...
She nearly killed him.
If the Watchmen hadn't come...
Mama had said it would be all right when she came to take Darlene home. Papa spoke with the captain on duty for hours, eventually securing her release without her suffering any Points for the attack.
That night, they went to Grandmama's house, and Darlene learned why her feelings had been so strong. Papa held her while Mama and Grandmama told her the story.
There was a magical aura in Darlene's body, created more than two hundred years ago by one of Grandmama's great grandmothers. Darlene alone, out of all her brothers and sisters, had inherited this family secret, which fell each generation to the seventh-born child, always a daughter.
Great Grandmama Brownstone, a sorceress from Nerva City, had created this magic for unknown reasons. Darlene learned only that it would last for seven generations, the magic passed down from mother to daughter, carrying a gift of great importance to the final heir. According to Mama, Darlene was sixth in line. Her own daughter would inherit the gift.
To ensure the continuity of the line so that the gift would arrive as intended, the magic had effects designed to aid its couriers. The most important involved a heightening of the psychic and emotional senses, which accelerated the development of personal relationships and revealed their true potential. Because the exchange of psychic energy from aura to aura underlay the forming of all bonds, increasing the psychic contact sped up the process.
In effect, the magic helped reveal the suitability of potential mates, usually within a short time.
Darlene saw what Mama and Papa shared. In twenty years, they had never fought. Disagreed, argued, but never fought.
The magic had brought them together.
For Darlene, the magic seemed to do more than for Mama and Grandmama. She could tell within minutes - sometimes at a glance - that a man could never satisfy her, never answer the cry of longing echoing through her soul. Sometimes she felt as if, for her, there might be only one man to meet her needs. Every time she tried to dismiss the feeling, it rebounded ferociously. And the worst part was that she could not blame the magic, which only worked to intensify her feelings, never to change them. Her loneliness lay upon her own shoulders, a product of her own emotions, her own desperate needs.
In recent years, dozens of suitors had asked for her attention. She turned them all away. She had never felt a crush, never kissed, never given more than friendship to any man. Even women had approached her, thinking she did not like men, but Darlene turned them all away.
Her longing for marriage dwarfed Fanny's simple lusts, but Darlene knew she had to choose wisely. Thus, she held herself in check, caught between hope and despair.
Mama and Papa understood. So did Gayla. But whenever Darlene tried to explain to anyone else, even her sisters, even her friend Maleri, they did not understand. She had grown weary of trying to justify her unusual gift, so she stopped trying, enduring their good intentions in silence.
Fanny sensed her discomfort. "All right, I'm sorry. I know you don't like to talk about it. Let's forget it, huh?"
"Okay."
The older girl rattled the pouch at her waist and broke into a grin. "Listen to that jingle, will you? Not a bad day's gain, even for quitting early. Don't you think?"
"Yes."
They turned left on Stetson Boulevard, heading south into the district of guilds. Guild offices and shops lined both sides of Stetson from Half Street to Quarter Street.
Ahnwhal, the capital of Nervinia, represented a unique and momentous achievement: the intentional creation of an entire city. After the Five Day War, eight hundred and fifty years ago, King Ahn had conceived Ahnwhal as a place from which his line might rule Nervinia for ages.
Darlene admired the design of her city.
Laid out like a spider's web, Ahnwhal's streets circled the hub in concentric rings or began at a given ring and moved outward to the defense wall. The pattern confused tourists, but Darlene could find her way blindfolded. She knew the whitewashed buildings and cobblestone streets like she knew the back of her hand. The back of her hand...
She glanced down at the back of her right hand, bare of the marriage mark, and sighed. After work, she and Fanny were supposed to meet Gayla and Maleri. The four planned to go Owl hunting that evening - hunting for men, that is, the idea being that one needed a man to get married, which was how one obtained a Marriage Owl.
Darlene enjoyed such outings, but afterward she always felt lonely. Mama encouraged her to keep looking, though. How else could she meet her future husband?
Fanny said, "I'm thirsty. Let's get some water."
Darlene approved the idea. Anything to distract her from her pensive mood. "All right, but I'm paying."
Fanny offered a surprised grin. "It's my turn to buy, Dee. Did you forget or something?"
Darlene grinned back, already feeling better. "First one to the nearest cart pays!"
She took off like an arrow shot from a longbow, using one hand to keep her shortsword from flopping against her leg. Fanny ran after her, but Darlene was the fastest runner in the guild. Her long legs carried her swiftly, dodging among startled citizens like a deer bounding through a flock of sheep. Warm wind brushed her cheeks, bringing relief from the desert heat - relief that would demand payment the moment she stopped. Still, it felt good to break loose and run, her hair whipping behind her, bouncing against her shirt with every stride.
She spotted a water peddler after two blocks and slid to a halt in front of his pushcart. Fanny caught up a few moments later and the two shared a round of giggles, panting to catch their breath.
The water peddler, an elderly man dressed in a white cloak and suit, greeted them with a smile. He had thin gray hair and a ruddy face, and Darlene recognized him as one of Mama's acquaintances. Mama knew everyone working near the guild, from the Watchmen to the Streetsweepers to the leaders of the other guilds.
"Afternoon, Miss Frasier. Will that be one or two?"
Darlene reached for the coin purse attached to her belt and fished out her last two silver pieces. "Two, please."
The peddler opened the larger of two lids opening into his cart. Inside lay a bushel of bright green fruit the size of grapefruits. He handed two to Darlene and closed the lid. The water plants wobbled slightly as she took them, passing one to Fanny.
With a flourish, Darlene drew one of her concealed knives and applied a quick stab to the side of the plant.
Fanny poked a hole in hers with a finger. "Show off."
Darlene flipped the knife back into its sheath. "I won the race, you silly. I deserve to show off."
Fanny raised her plant and said no more.
Darlene drank, savoring the fresh taste of the plant's liquid center, water more pure than most drawn from a well. When the girls finished, they handed the empty rinds to the peddler. He opened the smaller lid and tossed the rinds in on top of dozens of others, which he would eventually sell to the Farmer's Guild as fertilizer.
The two waved good day to the peddler and walked the last few blocks to the Thieves Guild, a four-story building like any other - whitewashed, with many windows facing the street. The guard at the door flirted with Fanny as they passed him. Fanny flirted back, making Darlene roll her eyes. If not for monthly infertility potions, the girl would be a mother five times over. At least.
Stolen artwork lined the walls, a subtle reminder to any visitors of the costs of forgoing Protection.
Darlene led the way to the second floor, where the two began the tedium of reporting their gains. Thieves could not be expected to keep accurate records, but a degree of effort was spent to that end to satisfy the authorities.
In the Guild, except within Mama's circle, Darlene had a reputation as a woman best left alone, which was fine with her. She let Fanny deal with the other thieves as the daily routine required. After handing over a percentage of their take, the two headed downstairs to Mama's office. Darlene longed to hear the news about her brother.
The guildmasters had offices in the cellar, beyond the reach of the hot sun. Each kept track of one department of operations. Mama ran the Department of Cooperation, the most visible post in the guild. She worked closely with the City Watch - with several of Papa's friends - to keep track of all theft activity in Ahnwhal, to make sure that everyone played by the rules. Thieves and Watchmen.
Mama's room occupied the coolest spot available. Lights floated in each corner, bathing the room in brightness. Such magical lights lined every street in the city, shining day and night without fail. Most homes had them, too.
Mama sat behind her desk, drafting a letter with her magical quill, which she had stolen from the Mayor's office a few years back. Mama looked up and, seeing Darlene and Fanny standing in the doorway, broke into a smile.
Darlene stepped inside as Mama rose. "Hi, Mama."
"I'm glad you're here, Dee. Papa got a letter from Brian today. It arrived from the palace this morning."
Darlene felt her heart leap. "Will he be coming home for Festival?"
Mama assumed her patient face. "No, dear, but he might be home for your birthday. Papa will show you the letter when you get home."
Her birthday? That was three weeks away. Darlene sighed, unsure what to make of this news. It was not more small talk, but it was not good news, either.
Mama rounded the desk to embrace her. Darlene buried her face against Mama's neck, smelling the sweet fragrance of Mama's golden hair, the smell of safety.
Then Mama took her by the shoulders, displaying an everything-will-be-all-right face. "Run along, now, and have your supper. You have a busy night ahead."
Darlene blushed. She had forgotten the Owl hunt.
Fanny sighed wistfully. "I can hardly wait."
Mama rolled her eyes. Darlene laughed. Fanny scowled, and then Mama started to laugh, too. When the laughter faded, Darlene turned to leave. "Bye, Mama."
"Have a good time, girls, and stay together."
Fanny said, "Don't worry, Mistress Frasier. I won't let any vultures get hold of our virgin girl."
Darlene punched her in the ribs, unable to believe she had said that in front of Mama. "Fanny!"
Fanny glared back. "Oh, Dee, grow up. It's not as if she doesn't know."
Darlene blushed like a berry and hurried up the stairs, realizing that Fanny had gotten into one of her scene-making moods. Tonight was going to be a long night.
Outside, Darlene turned south, heading home, but Fanny stopped her. "Let's go to Sid's, Dee. I'm hungry."
Darlene shook her head. "I'm saving to buy gifts."
"I'll pay. Come on."
With a sigh, Darlene turned north. Sid's Eatery lay around the corner from the Farriers Union, two blocks away. All the thieves in Mama's circle patronized Sid's. He served the best food at reasonable rates and kept most of the scum away. Darlene and company ate lunch there. When in season, Sid stocked apples imported from Minn - just for Darlene.
The girls greeted Sid, placed their orders, then sat at the booth in the corner where they always sat. Fanny pulled out a brush to brush her long black hair. "What are you going to wear tonight, Dee?"
Darlene shrugged. "I don't know. My sister Lori said I could borrow her blue outfit."
"So? Are you going to?"
"I guess. Maleri thinks I look good in blue."
Fanny snorted. "You look good in anything."
They chattered about their plans for the evening until Sid brought their plates. Fanny ordered the salad with two loaves of corn bread and a glass of wine. Darlene had the roast mutton sandwich and apple potpie, with a mug of hot cider. Sid collected the bill, then returned twice to refill Darlene's mug. He wore a greasy white apron over a white suit, a badge of Honor, the mark of his knighthood, pinned to his left shoulder. "I'll have your apple for you when you're ready to leave, Dee."
Darlene sighed wistfully, letting her affection for the old man show in her eyes. "What would I do without you?"
He beamed as always and went about serving the rest of his patrons with a huge, gap-toothed grin.
As Fanny finished her salad, a young man approached the booth and sat beside her. He had a knife scar over his left eye and a scraggy, untrimmed beard. He smelled of alcohol and old sweat, and Darlene disliked him immediately.
"Hello, girls. I could go for some entertainment."
Wearing a stupid grin, he put his hand on Fanny's knee.
Fanny pushed him away. "Let go of me, you dunghole!"
He frowned. "Oh, come on. I've heard about you. You like a good time as much as anybody."
"You think I'm a slut, do you?" She slapped him. Hard.
Silence swept across the diner.
Burning with humiliation, the ruffian sprang to his feet. "You whore! How dare you!"
Darlene started to reach for a knife.
Then Sid appeared, training the point of a polished longsword at the man's chest. "Get out."
"The whore slapped me! You saw her!"
"I said get out. Now."
The man glared hatred at Fanny. His eyes flicked to Darlene, then narrowed as he focused his attention on her, studying her closely. "It's you. You're the one."
Darlene felt eerily disquieted.
Then Sid flicked his wrist, slicing a button off the man's gray shirt. "You had best get moving, boy, unless you want to start breathing through your chest."
The ruffian cast Darlene a final glance and broke into a self-satisfied grin. "All right, old man. I'm going." He turned and headed for the door. "I'm going."
Sid followed him out, then returned with a scowl. "Who was that ape? Has he bothered either of you before?"
Darlene shook her head. "I've never seen him."
Fanny looked visibly rattled. She shook her head.
Sid stroked his gray beard. "I'll put out the word on him. In the mean time, you girls watch your backs and keep your eyes open. That one has the reek of the Meritless."
The girls finished their meal under a cloud of silence. Darlene felt uneasy, the memory of that self-satisfied grin burned into her mind. When they went to leave, she forgot her apple and Sid had to chase her to the door. He studied her with concern. "Would you like me to walk you home?"
Darlene said, "No, we'll be all right."
He scratched his beard, then nodded once. "As you say."
"See you tomorrow."
"Dee, tomorrow's Freeday."
"Oh." Darlene blushed, wondering where her mind had gone. Like Mama, she took Freeday off to be with family, which mattered more than making money. How could she forget that today was Worshipday? "I'll see you next week, then."
Sid opened the door. "See you Windday."
Darlene and Fanny walked south along Stetson, neither saying much. The sun hung low in the sky. Mounted traffic increased, migrating north, away from Center Circle.
When they reached Quarter Street, they turned right, heading counterclockwise toward the west. Darlene munched on her apple, savoring the sweet taste she loved. Fanny kept her eyes on the road, even to the point of ignoring the young men who tried to flirt with her. They stopped to rest at West Main Street, which ran due west from Center Circle.
Fanny said, "Maybe we should stay home tonight."
Darlene regarded her with raised eyebrows. "He really spooked you, didn't he?"
Fanny wrapped her arms around her chest and stared at Darlene with a frown. "Didn't he spook you?"
Darlene sighed. "Yes. He did."
"We can go Owl hunting tomorrow at Market Square. Lots of men head to market on Freeday. In the day time."
They sat on the corner for ten minutes, watching the traffic flow past them. Finally, they rose to continue the walk home, moving south by southeast as Quarter Street began to circle back on itself. Before they reached the southwest spoke, they came to the birth of Dolphin Street and turned right, now heading west by southwest.
Darlene had lived on Dolphin Street all her life. Her family's apartment was located between Half Street and Outer Quarter Street, near one of the armories of the City Guard.
The Guard manned the defense wall; the Watch policed the streets. Ahnwhal had not been threatened since the Ravage, seven hundred years ago, but that was because Nervinia remained vigilant, ready to defend itself.
With Brian on "maneuvers" in eastern Nervinia, Darlene thought often about the Ravage. If another such war began, he would be among the first in harm's way.
The Ravage had forever changed the West. Out of nowhere had come the great Horde, an army of monsters, of beings twisted into inhuman shapes: Demons and Dragons and Ogres and such. Bent on conquering the Human race, these monsters invaded from the east, from across the Barrier, a mountain range of nearly impassible peaks. The mightiest armies of the West rose to meet the invaders, and the Horde crushed them all, even the Nervinian army.
Only the efforts of one woman, remembered for her Books of Merit, saved the Human race from extinction. All the West owed its survival to Deborah Ahnking, former Queen of Nervinia, and her council of twelve: the mightiest group of sorcerers ever assembled. After a fierce struggle, they drove the Horde back into the mountains of the Barrier.
An uneasy, unofficial truce continued to this day, with the Horde launching occasional wars to test the resolve of the Humans. That was why Darlene feared for her brother. He belonged to a special class of knights, the Forfenders, who were trained to battle the fierce Demonlings of the Horde. Worse, his unit had been ordered into the lands of eastern Nervinia, where the Horde must strike first in any invasion.
Might another war be about to start? She hoped not. The thought of Brian leading soldiers into battle against such monsters nearly reduced her to tears. Each week, her fears grew. Brian gave no indication of danger, but like Mama, Darlene paid attention to details. Maneuvers in the desert should not last for months, no matter what Papa said.
And yet, war had not broken out. If the Horde intended to start a war, what were they waiting for? Darlene shook her head. Maybe she was worrying too much.
As she and Fanny approached Cactus Street, several men emerged from an alley to block their path. An old man wrapped in white robes drew Darlene's eye, but then she saw a man wearing a black silk shirt and pants who commanded immediate attention, his clean-shaven face topped with oily black hair, tousled and unkempt. He stood like a panther, his dark eyes missing no detail. A broadsword hung at his hip, and he looked like he knew how to use it.
A third man stood between these two, wearing a gray shirt that was missing a button. He had a knife scar over his left eye. Darlene recognized him.
She turned to run.
Before she took a step, she stopped. Six more men stood behind her, spread out to block escape.
Fanny edged closer to Darlene, clearly frightened.
Darlene drew a knife and faced the man in black, who seemed to be the leader. "What do you want?"
He grinned, amused by the question.
The ruffian in the gray shirt stepped forward to point at Darlene. "See? I told you it was her, Stokes!" He smiled in self-satisfaction, clearly proud of himself. "She matched your description perfectly."
Stokes's gaze never left Darlene's face. With a curt hand signal, he ordered his men to tighten the trap.
Darlene began to sweat. She knew better than to count on Fanny. The girl had a good head, cool under fire, but she didn't know the first thing about real combat.
Precious seconds slipped away as Darlene racked her brain in search of a plan. In the distance, concerned citizens called for the Watch. If she could buy time...
"Who are you?" she demanded.
Stokes grinned. "You will know soon enough."
Darlene saw it in his eyes: he was not going to let her go. She had to act now.
Whirling like a dust devil, she let fly with her knife.
The blade struck one of the men behind her, tearing into his throat. He went down in a gurgle of agony.
"Run, Fanny!" Darlene shouted. "Run for your life!"
Then all confusion broke loose.
Darlene found herself surrounded by seven or eight men, each armed with a wooden cudgel. They wanted to take her alive, apparently, as they seemed the type to prefer knives. She drew her dagger and tore into them, stabbing at least two before they bore her to the ground.
As her weapon was ripped from her hand, she heard Fanny's screams fall silent.
Then strong hands took hold of her leather armor and lifted her to her feet. She tried to break free, writhing like a wild animal, but several pairs of hands pinned her arms behind her back. She ceased to struggle, coming face to face with her abductor.
He grinned as if satisfied by her resistance.
"Ah, my queen, I have waited a long time for this moment - a VERY long time." He thrust his face toward her, so close that she could smell his breath. "Now we shall see whose will is truly the stronger."
Before she could sort that out, she heard the sounds of approaching rescue: booted feet striking the cobblestone, Watchmen drawing weapons, voices shouting to disarm in the name of the law.
Then Darlene saw the white-robed man raise his hands, muttering words of power. A sorcerer!
Bright red energy missiles shot from his fingertips, dropping the Watchmen one after another. Darlene gasped in dismay. She heard screams echo up and down the street.
People scattered. Missiles fired.
Then Stokes reached inside his shirt and brought out something Darlene could not see. He raised his hand to her neck and she felt something prick her skin.
A sense of dizziness swept over her.
She lost consciousness a few moments later.


Chapter Two
As riders approached the gates of Zorkar, a mountain city of the Varns, one stopped to gaze southward toward Nervinia.
The riders, confused, asked what had happened. A knight dressed in a blue cloak nudged his horse forward, two badges of Merit pinned to his shoulder. A two-handed sword rested across his back. "Carolton? Is something wrong?"
Carolton stared southward, oblivious of his followers. He sought to discern the source of the energy, a psychic blast of incredible strength. The contact faded quickly, leaving him to wonder what had happened.
Realizing the others were watching him, he forced a smile. "I'm all right, Arthur," he said to the knight.
Arthur frowned, still concerned.
Mirwin eased his mount forward. A Varn of Lauren birth, he had white skin and pale blue eyes, contrasting sharply with the other riders, mostly tan-skinned Nervinians. In the style of his people, he wore his black hair shoulder length. His robes contained most of his possessions. He scowled like a vulture. "You sensed something?"
Carolton shrugged. "I don't know. I-- thought for a moment that I was receiving a message."
"But you were not?"
"No."
Arthur looked ready to draw his sword. "Another warlock, maybe? You'd think they'd have learned by now."
Mirwin scowled at him.
Arthur frowned back. "Hey! Something just happened to Carolton! It might have been an attack."
The sorcerer sighed.
A lady dressed like Arthur maneuvered her mare between the men. "That's enough, you two." She wore only one mark of knighthood, yet both men deferred to her as if her authority exceeded such bounds.
Arthur waved an arm in his own defense. "Hey! It wasn't my fault, Sheila! He started it."
Sheila crossed her arms.
Arthur shut up.
Carolton decided to intervene before this got out of hand. "Mirwin, you know the way. Take point. Arthur, bring up the rear. Sheila, with me. Let's go. We're almost there."
With hushed speculation, the company rode into the city, seventeen strong, Carolton at the center of the formation. His thoughts lingered on his experience, for he felt disquieted. Again he glanced south, right before the defense wall blocked his line of sight.
He had not been home in four years, not since the day that disagreements with his father led to an ultimatum he could not accept. He did not regret leaving, but for the first time, he thought of going home. He could only have picked up on such distress from someone close to him.
As the company rode through Zorkar, Carolton marveled at how alien this city seemed, even after all his travels. How Mirwin understood the layout of these narrow, twisty streets, he had no idea.
Where the company passed, groups of Varns paused to eye them suspiciously. Some muttered curses at the "barbarians", but Carolton did not take offense. Varn prejudice against outlanders rose more from cultural arrogance than from any mean-spiritedness. They were slow to trust, was all.
As the sun set, the company arrived at Baron Estrier's mansion, a sprawling estate amid the unadorned houses of the northeast quarter. Guards admitted them without challenge.
Brightly dressed servants met them in the courtyard. Carolton dismounted and sent the servants to stable the horses. The baron came out to greet the company. A well-fed man, he wore a bright red outfit and a purple cloak.
Those wearing armor, including Carolton, jingled and rattled as they walked. Young maids came to take their cloaks as the baron led the way inside.
"Ah, Sir Carolton! So good to see you again."
Carolton handed his golden cloak to a maid. He studied the portly baron and broke into a grin. "Kleegor! You look as if you've lost ten years. I'm pleased to find you in such good health."
Estrier shrugged. "I've kept away from the wine, as you advised."
Carolton clapped him on the shoulder. "I told you sobriety would be worth the trouble."
The baron laughed. "The wife certainly thinks so. She's taken to sleeping in, if you understand me."
Smiles spread across the faces of the company.
The baron's eyes gleamed. "You have returned sooner than expected, my friend. Do you bring good news?"
Carolton flashed a hand-sign at Mirwin, who pulled a role of vellum from his robes. The paper was tied with a string and sealed with wax. The baron took the document and broke the seal, reading with an eager smile.
Three years ago, Carolton and company had rescued the baron from highway bandits. Carolton used magic to tend his wounds, and they had formed a fast friendship. Since then, every six months or so, Estrier had paid handsomely for the company's services, such as guarding his caravans and escorting negotiators into new territory. Recently, the baron had asked Carolton to settle a dispute with the Merchant Guild of Vessla, a city of the Hinturites.
As Estrier read the document, his eagerness transformed into enthusiasm. "Why, this is excellent news! Excellent! I have not settled a rumpus this favorably in many seasons."
Arthur grinned. "Not bad, eh? For barbarians, I mean."
Mirwin scowled.
The baron remained focused on the document. "Aye."
Carolton shook his head, deciding to act before Arthur caused a scene. "We have traveled far today, baron. Might we have rooms and some water to refresh ourselves?"
Estrier looked up. "Oh, aye. My apologies." He clapped his hands and a young maid appeared. "Show these visitors to their rooms. Have baths drawn for all who wish them." He turned to Carolton. "You shall dine at my table tonight, my friend. We will celebrate this achievement."
Carolton nodded.
The maid led the company to the guest wing. Carolton's room was on the second floor, where the group's leaders were quartered. He paused to speak with Sheila.
"I'd like an uneventful evening."
She nodded once. "I'll see to it."
"Thanks. You're a real princess."
She pushed him toward his room. "Go. You're stinking up the hallway in more ways than one."
Carolton laughed. Once inside his room, he unbuckled his armor plates and shed his coat of chainmail. Three maids brought water for his bath. One offered to stay, but he dismissed her. He preferred to bathe himself. Stripping, he stepped into the tub and relaxed in the warm water.
The psychic presence did not return, but its memory stayed in his mind. He felt as if something were terribly wrong, but what that might be, he could not determine.
Though a powerful leader, Carolton was not tall. His adversaries often made the mistake of underestimating him.
They did not make that mistake twice.
His weapons lay on the floor with his armor. He carried a spiked ball-and-chain flail because few knew how to defend against one. He preferred talking to fighting, but once he drew arms, things happened. He did not make threats; he took action. And such was his reputation throughout the West.
A sandy-blond beard and mustache, trimmed in knightly fashion, framed his tan-skinned face. On his golden cloak, he wore the silver badge of his knighthood: Sacrifice.
He had grown up with Arthur and Sheila -- their fathers were best friends. When, at age eighteen, Carolton made the decision to leave home, they went with him. Sheila, another Knight of Sacrifice, proved ready for life on the road. At age fourteen, Arthur had not; yet with Carolton's help and Sheila's support, he eventually found his way. After four years on the road, Arthur carried more than his own weight, though he still had a propensity for getting into trouble.
Carolton's guards, Solomon and Errik, had shocked his father by supporting his decision to leave. They remained loyal friends, willing to lay down their lives for him.
Together, the five had snuck out of Ahnwhal through the sewers - with help from a friend.
Shortly after leaving home, Carolton met Mirwin and the Knight of Valor, Sir Frederick. The company began with them and grew slowly over time. Each of the sixteen now riding with Carolton owed the man his or her life at least one time over. As a leader, he inspired fierce loyalty.
When he finished his bath, he donned a white shirt and brown pants and went to check on his people. Solomon assured him that everyone had settled in, so he went back to his room to rest and ponder the day's events.
At dinner that night, he kept to himself, an event in its own right. On his way back to his room, Arthur waylaid him to express concern. Carolton tried to play down his pensive mood, but Arthur wasn't having it.
"Hey, Carl. It's me, all right? Something's been bothering you all evening. What's going on?"
Carolton rubbed his eyes. "I wish I knew."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"No. It's just a feeling, Arthur. Just a feeling."
Arthur frowned, dubious about the whole affair, but he accepted the explanation. "All right, then. I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night, Arthur."
Later, as Carolton lay in bed, he wondered why he had thought of home when the distressed energy reached his aura. Had something happened to a member of his family? To someone he cared deeply for? The idea worried him.
For a long time, he lay in the darkness gripped by a sense of tragedy. He tried to shake the feeling, to convince himself that his imagination was running wild, but he did not believe it. When the darkness finally claimed him, he had given up the struggle altogether.

The dream began almost immediately.
Carolton found himself in a place both foreign and familiar, a place he recognized but had never seen. He walked the halls of a house - his own house, something whispered to him, though he had grown up in the Palace and never owned a house. Loneliness echoed through the rooms, up and down the stairs, clinging to the walls like a bad smell.
He came to the hearth in the sitting room. A two-handed sword hung above the mantle. Carolton felt a chill as he recognized the markings on the hilt. This was the sword of Karl Brownstone, a legendary Varn master-at-arms.
Carolton stared in shock as he remembered events he had never experienced. Master Pluck had given him that sword as a gift to seal a bargain. He remembered every detail.
He swallowed hard. He had never met Master Pluck.
Pluck was one of the surviving Arch-Magi of the Circle of Power, the group that had driven away the Horde and put an end to the Ravage. The Keeper of the Light, the legendary queen from Nervinia, had founded and led that effort.
Master Pluck sought out Karl to learn more of armed combat. Karl refused, having no need of Pluck's money. Then the wizard offered to teach magic to Karl's little brother, who wanted to become a sorcerer. Carolton gaped in disbelief as he remembered these things.
Finally, he reached for the sword and found that its weight rested comfortably in his strong, pale hands.
This was, indeed, his sword.
Then Karl Brownstone woke suddenly from a dream of his own, and Carolton found himself in a passive role, reliving a memory instead of just remembering. He could see and hear every detail but could not act or speak.
Karl rose from his bed and began to dress, moving with urgency. He ran across the hall to his armory and opened a wardrobe containing his suit of armor. He donned thick cotton pads, then slipped into his chainmail and began to fasten armor plates to his body. When he finished, he ran downstairs to fetch his sword from the sitting room before heading to the stable.
He glanced at the late afternoon sun - he had been napping after working all morning - then ran to saddle his charger, a black stallion. He slid his huge sword into a sheath on the charger's side, took up his lance and mounted.
As Carolton relived this memory, he began to sense a familiar feeling. He recognized the feeling immediately, a psychic cry for help from someone close to him. Karl had sensed it, too, and was now on his way to help the caller.
His black charger thundered through the city, nearly trampling several brightly clad Varns. Karl cursed the barbarian heads of those who blocked his way, threatening them with a shake of his lance. He maneuvered through the traffic as best he could, then galloped through the city gate and burst onto the road leading south.
As the psychic call tore through Carolton's aura, he realized that he was actually there with Karl Brownstone. Reliving the memory, yes, but also living it. The pounding of hooves, the scent of the forest, the heat of the sun, the cool rush of wind against his face. These sensations felt real, as if he had traveled to another time, another world.
He felt an overwhelming concern for the source of the cry, someone very dear to his heart. Someone he didn't know.
The magnetic force of the energy eventually drew Karl onto a trail through the forest. Several minutes later, he began to smell smoke.
The charger burst into a clearing occupied by a village under attack by Hordelings. Carolton saw dozens of houses on fire. Bodies lay scattered, some in the streets, others in the fields. Monstrous Hordelings lurked through the village, searching the buildings as if hunting a dangerous foe.
As Karl studied the raiders, he saw only Demonlings, creatures of fearsome might who seldom ventured forth from the Barrier. What were they doing here, in Lauraleigh?
Carolton knew that Hordelings had been classified into four categories: the Dragons, the Demons, the Elementals and the Humanoids. Each group had its own leaders. Each seemed divided into four races.
In the Ravage, the Keeper of the Light, Queen Deborah, had defeated the Great Dragon, the leader of the Horde, in single combat. She had not slain him, but instead showed mercy. They spoke of Merit, of life and death and other matters of the spirit. After much discussion, she won his trust, his confidence, his friendship.
The Dragons had scattered at the command of their great leader, but the rest of the Horde had fought on. Even as the Circle drove them back, the Demon Lord had cursed the Great Dragon as a traitor and vowed to take revenge. Carolton knew that most Nervinian scholars considered the Demon Lord the force behind the continued raids and attacks.
The Demonlings were fierce warriors: large, misshapen Trogs; spidery Tarants with enough might to rend stone and poison that could kill in one bite; and Neptons, who could alter their bodies to a variety of ends. The deadly Slayers were seen no more. Most believed them extinct.
Karl surveyed the field, trying to discern the reason he had been called to this place.
And then he saw her, moving through the streets.
The smoke and haze would have concealed her if not for her long blond hair. She wore robes of the darkest black and appeared for only a moment.
Bright blue energy missiles shot through the air. A Trog went down in a wail of rage and agony.
With inhuman quickness, Demons converged on the woman's position, Tarants and Trogs all moving in one great blur.
A cottage exploded, scattering flaming debris. Inhuman cries rang out as black flames engulfed a pair of Tarants, disintegrating them. Others scurried away on spidery limbs.
The woman appeared, running from house to house.
She stumbled! She seemed slow to rise!
Hordelings closed on her position!
Karl kicked the black stallion into a desperate charge.
Bracing himself, he lowered the point of his lance.
Carolton watched in awe as the master-at-arms targeted one of the Tarants, bearing down upon the Demonling.
Karl heard the blonde gasp as he charged past her, the dead Tarant dragging along the ground, ripping the lance from his hands. He leapt from the saddle, his suit of armor clanging as he struck the ground. Rolling to his feet, he turned to glance at the sorceress.
Beneath the bruises, her face had the richly tanned color of the Nervinian people. She was about thirty years old, extremely young for a sorceress of such impressive skill - impressive in that she was still alive, facing adversaries capable of butchering hundreds of men.
Carolton had never met this woman, but something about her seemed strikingly familiar. Karl sensed this also, for he burst into a huge, happy grin. "Ah, fear not, little barbarian. I have come to your rescue!"
As the charger circled back, Karl drew his two-handed sword from its sheath on the stallion's flank. He swatted the beast to send it away, then braced himself for battle.
Behind him, the woman began to cast another spell.
A Tarant scurried forward, razor claws blurring with deadly speed. Karl attacked, his magical sword striking out to fell the great Demon in a single blow.
Hordelings charged the two defenders. The woman kept the attackers away from Karl's back. His sword dealt misery and death to his foes, striking off limbs and inflicting deep wounds, though often at the cost of taking a blow in return, some powerful enough to crush bones. Carolton shared in the agony, reliving the events in excruciating detail.
He admired the Varn's courage and skill, which exceeded even that of Carolton's brother, a three-time champion of the martial games. Blows and tactics that would have caught Bradd dealt only minor damage to the great master-at-arms, Karl Brownstone. Even the sorceress was impressed.
Then a blow knocked Karl to the ground, forcing the wounded sorceress to send more energy missiles into the ranks of the foe. Carolton wished he could help, but there was nothing he could do. He and Karl were the same person.
When a Nepton's strike downed the sorceress, however, Karl flew into a rage, rising like an angel of darkness to strike at the offending attacker. The Demon went down in a spray of blood, and several more followed him.
When at last the din of battle faded, only the great Lauren champion remained standing, the Hordelings either routed or slain. Sorely wounded, he hurt in every part of his body and held himself erect with an effort of will.
Leaning on his sword for support, he turned to find the sorceress smiling up at him.
"See?" he panted. "I told you not to fear."
Great tenderness showed in her blue eyes. "Yes, but now who's going to rescue you?"
He laughed uproariously, then winced and doubled over in agony. When he caught his breath, he said, "My lady of the palm tree people, your wit is sharp." He dropped to his knees, yet managed to add, "For a barbarian."
The woman crawled to his side, her black robes hanging from her shoulders in tatters, stained with her blood. She brushed a lock of sweaty blond hair away from her eyes and knelt over him to examine his wounds. He flinched at her touch, but she snapped, "Stop that!" and he promptly grew still. She felt through his hair, which trailed blood onto his shoulders, but she found no fracture.
His chest was another matter.
She said, "You'll die without immediate care."
"As you say. Yet a glorious death it shall be, aye?"
"Glorious," she agreed. "You fought well, for a Varn."
He laughed again, and again winced. "You will speak highly of my death, pretty outlander?"
She snorted. "Who said you were going to die?"
"You did, just now."
"Did I?" she mused. "I may have been wrong."
With the last of her strength, the woman began to cast a spell of teleportation. Moments later, the burning village vanished, replaced by the buildings of a city. Karl found himself lying on a flight of steps leading up to the doors of a great temple. He had no idea where she had taken him.
Carolton recognized the place immediately, for it was the Temple of the Owl in Ahnwhal, where he had studied to become a priest against the wishes of his father. The Palace was just down the street, at the end of the row of temples.
Karl shook his head. "Typical barbarian. You forgot my charger!"
"Shut up. I'm saving your life, you fool."
The priests of the Owl used magic to heal their wounds and provided them quarters in which to recover. The woman healed quickly. After two days, she left the temple - for good, Karl thought. To his surprise, she returned an hour later, meekly asking permission to enter his room.
"I found your charger for you," she told him.
The news stunned him. "You did?"
She nodded. "Cropping grass not a hundred yards from the village." She folded her hands in her lap as she sat beside his bed, but she would not meet his gaze. "He seemed to remember me, for he allowed me to bring him here."
Karl reached out to hold her hand. "Thank you. You do not know what this means to me."
She shrugged, still unable to meet his gaze.
After a while, he said, "I am named Karl."
"I-- I'm Daphina."
He grinned. "What a pretty name. Well fitting for such a pretty barbarian."
She smiled shyly, relaxing a degree. "Thank you."
"So tell me about yourself. How did you come to be in that village, fighting alone against such powerful foes?"
"I heard news of them on the road. When a Lauren patrol stumbled upon them, they attacked the nearest village -- I presume to mask their true intentions." She shrugged. "I went to help the villagers."
Karl smiled. "That was brave of you."
She shook her head. "By the time I arrived, there was no one left to save."
"Ah, but you kept the bastards occupied, a thing to be greatly admired. Many lives were surely spared thereby."
Daphina looked at him sideward. "How did you come to be there?"
Karl laughed uproariously. "You would not believe it!"
"Try me."
He studied her a moment. "Very well."
Carolton remembered the whole conversation. Karl talked about the psychic outcry, about the compelling force that drew him to the village. Then he said, "The call had to come from you. You were the only one there."
Daphina sat quietly. She did not deny his statement.
Over the following days, as Karl continued to recover, the two talked endlessly. Their conversation was laced with barbs and fraught with playful bickering, but a shared fondness and even tenderness lay behind every cut, thrust and parry of their tongues. Karl delighted in her company and grew to cherish her barbarian mannerisms.
After a week or so -- he was having so much fun, he lost track of the days -- Karl felt restored. The soreness faded from his body and his strength began to return. In a moment of daring, he kissed Daphina, then took her into his arms and stroked her golden hair. "Ah, sweet barbarian, how much I have grown to love you in so short a time!"
She leaned against him. Moments passed before he realized she was crying.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
Gently, she pushed away from him. Tears streaked her face as, for the first time in days, she could not meet his gaze. "I cannot do this to you. I cannot."
"What?" he said, cast adrift on the sea.
Her shoulders slumped. "I have used sorcery upon you."
Karl did not believe that for a moment. "Daphina? Ah, my love, please hear me. My feelings are sincere."
She forced herself to look up. "No, it's true. I cast a spell upon myself that has an affect upon men, causing their feelings to become stronger."
He took hold of her shoulders. "You have done this since we met?"
She bit her lip. "No."
"Then what is it for?"
She sighed. "I don't know if I can explain."
Karl leaned forward to kiss her. "Please try, Daphina."
"Oh, Karl!" Throwing her arms around his neck, she clung to him with all her might.
He held her gently, stroking her hair. Slowly, a change seemed to come over her. When she looked up, a new light of trust shone in her eyes.
Karl smiled, pleased by this turn. "I am listening."
She gulped. "All right. I will tell you."
He waited.
Drawing several deep breaths, as if preparing to plunge into deep waters, she said, "I wanted to pass a gift to one of my children -- one of the children I hope to bear -- so that my mistake would not be repeated."
"What mistake?"
"I-- I have been searching all my life for a secret knowledge. My soul cries out to me, longing for something that once was mine, that I gave up in order to exist here."
Karl sat down on the bed, listening now. "Searching for a secret knowledge? What secret knowledge?"
Daphina breathed a painful sigh. "Ancient knowledge of the paths to enlightenment, the keys to transcendence."
Karl studied the sincerity of her expression, the conviction of her stance. He did not know what to make of this. "Daphina, my sweet, these are questions for eternity, not for this world. You set yourself an impossible task."
She stamped her foot. "No!"
Carolton felt the strength of her will sweep over him like a tidal wave. Even Karl shrank away, moved by the force of her belief.
Then she sighed, turning her back. "Forgive me."
Karl rose and touched her shoulder. She spun like a whirlwind and threw her arms around him, burying her face in his neck. He embraced her, kissing the top of her head.
When she regained her center, Karl sat on the bed and invited her onto his lap. She came willingly, sitting with her knees facing left, the hem of her black robes still kissing the floor. With great tenderness, he brushed a lock of hair away from her eyes.
"Now. You were saying...?"
She leaned against him. "Oh, Karl. I know it sounds ridiculous, what I told you, but how else can I explain? The words do not exist."
"Then speak between the words, behind the words, beyond the words. I shall listen and I shall hear."
Daphina considered this, then relaxed into his care. "My quest began with a gift from my mother, a family treasure handed down for generations. All the West holds this treasure now, but few, if any, know its secrets. It is a map of sorts, a series of images that can open the doors of the soul. I have explored these images, and they have led me to my search -- for in the Underworld of the mind, there are twenty-three doors, but the deck of images provides keys for only twenty-two of them."
Karl said, "Deck of images? Are you referring to a deck of cards?"
"Yes. The suits represent images of the world, while the trumps represent images of the spirit."
"Trumps? What trumps?"
"Most games involve only the suits. A few use the card of the Fool, but even those discard the other trumps." She shook her head. "Many decks do not even have the trumps."
Karl held up his hands. "All right. I believe you."
Daphina looked him in the eye. "Tell me, Karl. What do you know of the Keeper of the Light?"
He shrugged. "What everyone knows. She led the Circle of Power to victory over the Horde."
"No, I mean about her life."
Karl told what he knew. "She was born a peasant girl and orphaned at a tender age. One of your barbarian wizards discovered her talent for magic and apprenticed her. She married the Prince Heir and he later became King. As Queen, she wrote the Books of Merit, and her husband founded Orders of Knighthood based on those works."
Daphina nodded eagerly. "Yes! You mentioned everything of importance except the deck of images. According to Olahm of Orhkney, she also discovered the deck!"
Karl frowned. "Olahm of Orhkney. Fah!"
She grabbed his hand. "Karl, please. Set aside your prejudices and listen. Olahm and Queen Deborah were close friends. He would know of such a thing."
Karl said, "What does this have to do with you?"
"The Keeper never finished the eighth book, the one known as the Lost Merit -- and I know why. Karl, the Books of Merit are based on the deck of images! I am not the first to search for the secrets of the soul."
"Can you retrace the Keeper's steps?"
Her shoulders slumped. "I already have, and that path leads to failure. The Keeper of the Light never found the final key. That is why her life's work remains incomplete."
Karl swallowed. "What are you saying?"
She clung to him. "Ah, my love. This is not the first life I have spent in pursuit of this goal -- nor will it be the last. I have failed, Karl. I have failed again, and now I must look to the future."
"You have cause for hope, then?"
She shook her head. "Not in this life."

Carolton woke abruptly, bathed in a lather of sweat.
Panting, he bolted upright and held his trembling hands before his face. Golden-bronze hands.
With a heavy sigh, he glanced around the room, awash in the light of early morning, and remembered where he was. For long minutes, he sat there, trying to ground his senses back to reality -- this reality.
He stared at his hands again, letting the shock of his experience roll over him. Karl Brownstone died more than two hundred years ago, fighting Dragons in eastern Nervinia with his wife -- his Nervinian wife.
Carolton decided he needed to talk to someone.
He sprang out of bed and scrambled into his clothes, intending to confide in Solomon. Instead he went to Sheila's room, he knew not why, and knocked softly at her door with trembling hands. He waited for an eternity, several moments at least, then turned away, wondering what to do next.
A latch clicked and Sheila's door cracked open. "Who's there? This had better be urgent, or you'll wish--"
"Sheila, it's me. I need to talk."
Her mouth dropped open. Then, self-consciously, she brushed at her hair and opened the door. "Uh... Come in."
Carolton claimed the space next to the bed and began to pace. He noticed her blue cloak hanging in the wardrobe, freshly laundered. Her armor, gleaming like new, lay piled in the corner with her mace. A vase of white flowers occupied the dresser, no doubt cut by her own hand from the baron's plentiful gardens. The blooms filled the room with a pleasant scent.
Sheila closed the door. She tightened her white robe and sat at the foot of the bed, now hyperalert and focused entirely on Carolton. "I'm here for you, Carl. You know that."
"Thanks. I-- I didn't know where else to turn. You're the only one who might be able to help me."
"Why? What's happened?"
"I've just had a very disturbing dream."
Carolton launched into an explanation of his dream. He kept the details to himself, but he conveyed the flow of the experience in precise terms. When he finished, he knelt at Sheila's feet, resting one hand on her knee. "What does it mean, Sheila? What does it mean?"
She met his gaze for a moment, then squeezed herself more tightly and stared at her lap. "A famous warrior, you say? Most people who claim such visions are only deluding themselves. We can't all have been someone famous in a previous life."
Carolton hung his head and sighed. "Then you think it was just a dream."
"I didn't say that."
He looked up, confused. "I don't understand."
Her dark eyes filled with compassion. She stroked his bearded cheek and smiled fondly at him. "You are not like most people, Carl. Not like most men."
For a timeless moment, he knelt there, transfixed by her gaze. The pleasant scent of the flowers floated in and out of his awareness, chased by the tenderness revealed in the set of her shoulders. Carolton felt as if she were trying to tell him something, but what? Afraid of the answer, he rose, turning away from her, and heard her breathe a tiny sigh.
Then she said, "Our dreams are more than the restless wanderings of our minds, Carl. Whether or not this dream was a true memory doesn't really matter. The dream brought you a message -- a message you should not ignore."
Carolton remembered the image of Demonlings closing on Daphina from all sides. He remembered the warmth of her body as he held her in his arms -- the fresh scent of her hair, the warmth of her breath upon his neck, the sweet comfort of her familiar presence. Most of all, he remembered the piercing psychic cry he had felt the day before -- a cry like the one that drew Karl Brownstone to Daphina's rescue.
He spun toward the bed, determination flowing through every cell of his body. "Thank you, Sheila. You have helped me make sense of a very confusing situation."
With a sad smile, Sheila rose from the bed to embrace him. She kissed him softly on the cheek, then held him at arm's length. "I would do anything for you, Carl."
He smiled back at her. "I know. That's why I came. I knew I could count on you, old friend."
She dropped her gaze to the floor. "Always."
He squeezed her shoulder once, then turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. Immediately, he went in search of Errik and Solomon. The two were not in their room, but he found them downstairs chatting with Baron Estrier. The baron broke into a huge grin. "Ah, Sir Carolton! I trust you had a pleasant night's sleep?"
"Yes, thank you." Carolton turned to his men-at-arms, brusquely ending the exchange of pleasantries. "Sol, Rik, I want you to rouse the company, then saddle the horses. After breakfast, we ride south."
The burly pair regarded him with astonishment.
Errik's mouth dropped open. "Uh, beggin' your pardon, sir, but did you say south?"
Solomon elbowed him in the ribs. "Rik!"
Errik blushed. "Oh. Uh, beg your pardon, Carl."
Solomon said, "We'll get right to it, sir."
Carolton nodded, then turned to the baron. "Something's come up. I'm afraid we need to be leaving this morning."
Estrier shrugged. "Aye, then. I'll have your payment ready within an hour. May I inquire as to your destination?"
Carolton took a deep breath, setting aside all his vows and oaths and bitter promises. This had nothing to do with his father, after all. He squared his shoulders and faced the Varn with grim determination.
"We're going home, to Ahnwhal."


Chapter Three
Darlene woke in an uncomfortable position, spread-eagled on a lumpy cushion, wearing only her drawers.
Fighting panic, she tried to sit up.
Thick, scratchy rope chafed her wrists, snapping taut as she began to move. With a startled gasp, she collapsed. Her wrists and ankles were secured to the bed, which comprised an old mattress thrown onto a sturdy wooden table.
She considered screaming but discarded the notion. Better to learn what she could before committing herself.
Lifting her head, she studied her prison. The room measured twenty feet square. Stone walls rose to a dingy stone ceiling. Metal racks lined the far wall, which bore the marks of frequent water leakage, huge black scars.
The smell of dust hung in the air.
Darlene saw her clothes piled on a chair next to the table. She started to reach for a knife, but when she tried to rock the table, it barely moved. She sighed. Her limbs were tied too securely. If she upset the table, the fall might break her arms.
The room had no windows, but a lightstick lay upon a second table, across the room to her right. Her abductor wanted her to understand her situation. He might have left her in the dark, but he did not.
The bedcover, made of rough cloth, itched against her back. Her limbs ached from lying in one position.
She remembered the man in black silk. She remembered his words, his manner -- as if he knew her, or thought he did. Whatever he wanted, he had specific ends in mind.
Helpless, she could only wait.
Hours later, she heard a bolt click back and a door swing open. Her trained ears caught the whisper of footfalls, then a shadow loomed over her, blocking the light.
Darlene felt the power of his presence, a power that transcended mere intimidation, though in fact he stood as tall as Papa. Black silk clung to him like a shroud of evil.
He moved to let the light fall upon her body. Darlene saw satisfaction in his eyes and braced for an assault.
He laughed, and her cheeks flared with humiliation.
Then he thrust his beardless face toward her, wearing a wicked grin. His voice rang with triumphant glee. "This is priceless! You have no idea who I am, do you?"
"Should I?"
"Perhaps. We've met before."
"I don't remember you! You've got the wrong person!"
He stood up straight and shook his head. "Ah, no, my queen. I would never mistake a mere mortal for YOU."
Darlene frowned in puzzlement. "Huh?"
He grabbed the chair, callously shoved her things to the floor, planted the chair next to the table and lowered himself into it like a king. His amusement grew as he studied her. "My, my, just look at you." He shook his head. "A lowly rogue, stealing copper pieces from the man on the street. No wonder we couldn't find you. Who would think to look there?"
Darlene realized this man was insane. "What do you want from me?"
"Your friend says your name is Darlene."
She started to deny it, then reconsidered.
"Yes, that's my name. Darlene Frasier." She challenged him with her gaze. "I thought you said we'd met before!"
He laughed, unrattled. "So I did, my queen. So I did."
She closed her eyes. "What do you want?"
"I want you to hate me."
"What?"
"Darlene," he said, "will you marry me?"
Her eyes flew open and she gaped in disbelief.
"Are you serious? You kidnap me, strip away my clothes, tie me down, and then expect me to want you? Go to Hell."
"I can take what I want."
"Go ahead!" she shouted, daring him. "Touch me once and forever earn my contempt!"
To her astonishment, he laughed with pleasure. "Ah, my queen, I have waited so long for this. So long. And now, at last, our battle begins." He leaned closer, oozing smugness from every pore, certain of his victory. "You will do anything I command. That I promise you."
She gulped. He sounded so convincing. Wanting something to cling to, she tried to rally, to strike back.
"You fool! Love doesn't work that way! You can't make someone love you! You can't make me fall in love!"
"I don't care about your love." He smiled. "You will obey my every command, or I shall destroy all that you hold dear." Silently, he rose to his feet. "Think about it."
Moments later, the door slammed shut and the bolt-lock snapped into place. Darlene lay in stunned silence.
Hours passed. Thirst and hunger began to plague Darlene. She would soon need to use a chamber pot or be forced to soil the mattress. Unwilling to beg - or worse - for relief, she ignored these urges.
She did not feel as revolted by Stokes as she believed that she should. Not even Grandmama Brownstone's magic could turn her anger and confusion into contempt. Stokes would do anything to get his way; yet he harbored a strange sense of respect for her. She got the sense that he knew something she did not -- something to put reason to all this insanity.
The stale air grew chilly, perhaps with the night. How much time had passed? One day? Two? She had no idea. ...


The Adventure Continues... when the books are published.



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