A great working of Wild Magic and High Magic strikes at the heart of the Demon Queen's plots, but the human city, the Golden City of the Bells, falls farther under her sway with each day that passes. And without the City's High Magicians, the Wild Magicians, the Elven Army, and all their allies will surely fall before the onslaught of the Demon Queen's malignant warriors.But all hope is not lost. The Light's young mages, tempered by war, grow ever more powerful. High Mage Cilarnen learns an ancient secret that can make him, for a brief, white-hot time, the greatest mage in the world--unless it kills him. Jermayan, the first Elf-Mage in centuries, has linked with the dragon Ancaladar and rediscovered the swift-as-thought powers of Elven magic, which can reshape mountains and summon lightning from clear skies. Knight-Mage Kellen has molded his troops and the Unicorn Knights into a deadly fighting force. Soon the Elven King and his Commanders put Kellen's magical gifts to their greatest test, in the final battle between the Elves, the humans, and the Demons. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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April 30, 2007
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Excerpt from When Darkness Falls: The Obsidian Trilogy, Book 3 by Mercedes Lackey
A Thousand Shades of Darkness
The price that the Wildmages, the Elves, and their Allies had paid to learn the plans of their Enemy had been high. Two-thirds of the Allied camp had shared in the cost of the Wildmages' spell, and lay now in their tents stunned into exhaustion, cared for by those who had been exempted from the Price of the spell.
No one had expected that the Price would be so heavy. If not for Cilarnen, Jermayan, and Kellen managing to blend their magics to shield Idalia from the attack of the Demon Queen Savilla and save the lives of the spell-linked Wildmages, the sacrifice would have been greater still: the lives of all the Elven Army's Wildmages, and perhaps the death of hundreds, even thousands, of fighters.
But with Shalkan and Ancaladar's help, Wild Magic and High Magick had worked together, though the effort of making them do so had cost Kellen dearly. And the spell had done what they needed it to do: Idalia had seen across Armethalieh's wards and decoded the cryptic warning that it had cost Cilarnen Volpiril so much to bring them. They now knew the specifics of the Demon's foothold in the Golden City.
Somehow, long ago, Savilla had touched the mind of the young Mageborn Anigrel, corrupting him utterly while he was still a child. All his life Anigrel had worked to one goal: to see the Endarkened gain ultimate power. Though Anigrel's father had been Commonsborn, Anigrel had risen above his lowly birth, becoming Arch-Mage Lycaelon Tavadon's private secretary and tutor to his son, Kellen, all the while worshipping his Dark Lady in secret. When Kellen had been Banished for practicing the Wild Magic, Anigrel's fortunes had continued to rise: Lycaelon had relied upon him more and more, elevating him swiftly through the ranks of Magehood. To increase his clandestine power, Anigrel had invented a conspiracy against the Mage Council, which had resulted in the Banishment of High Mage Volpiril's son, Cilarnen, and the resignation of several members of the High Council. The Arch-Mage, knowing nothing of this, had appointed Anigrel to one of the new vacancies, and adopted him as his son and heir.
From his new position of power, Anigrel had continued his work, sowing fear and distrust throughout the City against the Elves and the Wildmages, and creating the Magewardens and the Commons Wardens to watch the High Mages and the Commons for any sign of further treason---treason he himself had created. And all along he moved closer to his ultimate goal: removing the ancient and complex wards from the walls of Armethalieh---wards which sealed the City against attack by Demonic magic...
It was three days before Kellen was able to leave his bed, and at that, he was the first of the Wildmages---other than Idalia, who had not been touched at all by the spell's backlash---to be able to do so.
He guessed he was just stubborn.
All his life he'd been stubborn. His earliest memories---the ones he knew that were truly his, that hadn't been tampered with by Lycaelon to remove inconvenient memories of his sister Idalia---were of people telling him he was "too stubborn"---whatever that had meant in terms of life in Armethalieh. Too stubborn to learn his lessons by rote. Too stubborn to be a proper Mage-student and ornament to House Tavadon.
Later, of course, when he'd discovered that he was not only a Wildmage, but a Knight-Mage, he'd understood, because a Knight-Mage's most vital tool and weapon was his will. Once a Knight-Mage had made up his (or her---Kellen supposed the Wild Magic could make a female Knight-Mage if it chose, just as there were female Elven Knights) mind to do something, only Death could turn him aside from his purpose. If that wasn't being stubborn, Kellen didn't know what was.
Being stubborn had saved his life---and the lives of those around him and under his command---more than once since this war began. And it was a war. There could be no doubt in anyone's mind about that now.
When it had begun---it seemed so long ago, though the establishment of the Black Cairn to keep the rains from falling on the Elven Lands, which marked the first move in the Demons' strategy, could hardly have been more than a full turn of the seasons ago---no one had been sure of that. Even after Kellen had destroyed the Cairn, and the Elves had discovered that the Elven Lands were infested with a race of Dark-tainted beings that had lived there, unsuspected, for centuries, they had still not been sure.
After all, the Elves had fought the Endarkened twice before---the last time a thousand years ago---and each time it had been openly, on the battlefield. Only Kellen had been sure that this was war again, and though the Elves were polite, and certainly respected the fact that he was the first Knight-Mage born in a thousand years, they hadn't been willing to pay a lot of attention to the opinions of a seventeen-year-old boy. Even battle after battle with the Shadowed Elves---with Kellen proving himself in every one---hadn't really changed their minds. Elves lived a thousand years, and they did not hurry. Especially about changing long-held opinions.
But even before the Wildmages' spell, many of them had been changing their minds. Unfortunately, even if they did, it wasn't much help. You couldn't have a war if only one side showed up, and the Endarkened had shown absolutely no interest in taking to the battlefield. They were more than happy to cause droughts, to force the Elves and their Allies to expend their strength in things like cleansing the Elven Lands of the Shadowed Elves, to breed monsters in the Lost Lands and send them out to prey on anything they could reach, but as no one knew where Obsidian Mountain---the Demons' stronghold---was, or how to reach it, there was no way for the Allies to carry the war to the Enemy.
Leaving aside the fact that we're probably outnumbered, and we know that They're more powerful than we are, Kellen thought to himself. Demons were the most powerful Mages there were. All the Allies had to set against them was a handful of Wildmages, and no High Mages at all. In the last war, Armethalieh had fought on the Allied side. But not this time.
Despite that, the constant doubts and near-despair that Kellen had felt since the beginning were gone. With Idalia's discovery of the traitor within Armethalieh, and the discovery of the Endarkened's strategy, Kellen now knew why the Demons had been refusing to fight openly. Their intention was to subvert Armethalieh and make it fight against the Elves on behalf of the Demons---Light against Light. And then the Demons would destroy the winner.
Which means that powerful as They are, They're still afraid of us. Which has to mean we have a chance of winning. All we have to do is figure out what it is---and use it.
It was more effort than he'd expected it would be to dress, and for the first time in ages Kellen actually noticed the weight of his Coldwarg-fur cloak when he settled it over his shoulders. But it was unthinkable to brave the outdoors without it---when he'd broken the power of the Black Cairn, ending the year-long drought, the weather-patterns had been violently unsettled, and were still returning to normal. One of the side-effects of that was the hardest winter the Elven Lands had seen in centuries---and the coldest and snowiest, too.
When Kellen stepped out of his pavilion, the cold bit into him like a sword, and he shuddered, pulling his cloak tightly around him. It was sheer stubborn restlessness, he admitted to himself, that had gotten him up and out---that, and the fact that he wanted to see how Cilarnen was doing for himself. Since the Golden City had sealed its gates against the "Lesser Races," its name, and that of the High Mages, had been a byword for stupidity and ignorance. Cilarnen had as much to do to prove himself in the wider world as Vestakia did, and in helping to thwart the Demon attack upon Idalia, he'd done much to enhance his reputation.
Cilarnen was still living in the Centaur camp. Idalia had been a frequent visitor to Kellen's bedside, and she'd told Kellen that Cilarnen had been taken back there to recover, since the Healer's Tents were still filled with wounded from the Battle for the Heart of the Forest. By the time Kellen had walked there, he considered himself well-served for his rash decision to venture out. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this exhausted---even poisoned and half-frozen, he hadn't felt quite this hollow-boned.
Fortunately, most of the rest of the army seemed to be in better shape than he was. Oh, the camp was a great deal quieter than he'd ever seen it, and he didn't hear the sounds of drilling on the practice-field, but Kellen merely had the sense that the army was resting, not mortally wounded. And since he had come into his power, he had learned to rely upon those instincts.
He reached the edge of the Elven encampment and passed over into the Centaur encampment.
The Elves had their elaborate pavilions, and the Mountainfolk had their sturdy domed tents, but neither design would do for the Centaurfolk. Though in their villages they lived in houses very much like those of the humans with whom they often shared their lives, on campaign, their physical needs were best accommodated by a series of large boxy tents, big enough to hold a dozen Centaurs at once.
The last time Kellen had been here, he had realized that Andoreniel's people must have constructed all of these tents specially when Andoreniel had summoned the Centaur levies, because the Elves never, but never, went to war in winter, and in summer, the Centaurs would probably simply have slept outdoors. But for a winter campaign---and a hard winter at that---different arrangements had to be made. At least this way, nobody would freeze.
He found the tent where Cilarnen was staying without difficulty, making a mental note to see about at least getting Cilarnen a pavilion of his own to pitch in the Centaur camp as soon as possible. They'd had so many losses, Kellen reflected grimly, that a spare pavilion and furniture wouldn't be hard to find.
He lifted the flap and ducked inside---no Elven formality here!---glad to be out of the wind. It was comparatively warm inside; a heavy clay pot filled with coals set in the center of the tent radiated warmth.
The Centaur Wildmage Kardus stood beside Cilarnen's bedside, dozing, the only person in the tent besides Cilarnen.
The Centaurs had no ability to do magic, so Kardus, as a Centaur Wildmage, was as much a rarity as Kellen himself. Kellen supposed Kardus's lack of innate magic was the reason he wasn't suffering the same aftereffects of the spell that the other Wildmages were.
Kardus wore his black hair as long as any Elf, and braided into it were a number of charms and ornaments. He carried more such charms on his necklace, and others upon the broad belt that lay upon his hips. Some of them were bespelled---gifts from other Wildmages---since if Kardus could not cast spells of his own, that certainly did not keep him from taking advantage of the magic others gave him. His horselike body---for the Centaurs only closely resembled horses, being actually smaller and stockier---was as black as his hair, and he had three white feet, a pattern Kellen had not seen in any other Centaur.
Kardus cast no spells, but like all Wildmages, possessed the Three Books of the Wild Magic and followed their teachings. Unlike all other Wildmages, Kardus's life was guided by mysterious Knowings and Tasks presented to him, so he said, by the Gods of the Wild Magic, which he dealt with in his own way.
It was one such Task and Knowing that had brought Kardus's path to cross with Cilarnen's for the first time at Stonehearth, and their ways had lain together ever since. Kellen was glad for Cilarnen's sake. With everything that was being thrown at him so abruptly, Cilarnen desperately needed a level-headed friend to support him.
There was a stool at Cilarnen's bedside---placed for the convenience of the human Healers who came to check on him, Kellen supposed---and Kellen moved forward and sat down on it heavily. Another few moments and he would have sat down on the floor. He'd overestimated his strength, he supposed, and right now he wasn't really looking forward to the long cold walk back.
Cilarnen was lying listlessly in his sleeping pallet. There were deep shadows under his eyes, and he looked ravaged, as if he'd been suffering from a high fever. But he opened his eyes when Kellen sat down.
"Kellen," he said. "Did we win?"
What? Leaf and Star, hadn't anyone told the boy? It didn't matter that Cilarnen was a full year older than Kellen was. In so many ways Kellen was older than Cilarnen was, and always would be---though Gods of the Wild Magic forefend that he ever call Cilarnen "boy" aloud.
But perhaps Cilarnen simply needed to hear it again. Certainly the stakes were high enough that the truth could bear repeating.
"Yes. You saved us all."
Cilarnen grimaced and turned his head away, as if Kellen were offering false praise.
"Cilarnen, it's true," Kellen said. "It wasn't your shield alone that stopped the attack, or Jermayan's. It was both together. I think that's the secret: High Magick and Wild Magic working together. I don't think They can stand that. I think it's how you won at Stonehearth---because you and Wirance worked together there."
Cilarnen took a deep breath, struggling to sit up. Kellen moved quickly to help him, feeling Cilarnen's muscles tremble with the effort. Even a season's hard labor in the stables of the Centaur village of Stonehearth hadn't done much to put muscle on Cilarnen's fine-boned Mageborn frame. Kellen took after his Mountainborn mother---after two seasons of Knightly training he had the muscles and the stamina for a hard winter campaign. For the first time, it occurred to him that Cilarnen simply might not be physically strong enough to survive out here.
"So all we have to do to defeat Them is convince the High Mages to fight for the Elves," Cilarnen said with a faint note of despairing humor in his voice. "Well, that's simple enough."
"Harder tasks have been accomplished, when one has set their feet upon the Herdsman's Path," Kardus said reprovingly, raising his head. "And now, since you will admit that you are awake, tea, and soup. I will fetch them." Kardus walked from the tent, collecting his cloak at the door.
"He nags me to eat," Cilarnen said with a sigh when the Centaur Wildmage had gone.
"Isinwen does the same to me," Kellen said. "You have to eat, though. You're going to need all your strength."
"For what?" Cilarnen demanded bitterly. "I'm a High Mage who can't do magick---unless you want fires lit or water boiled---because to cast any really powerful spells I need training I haven't got, tools I haven't got, and most of all, a power source I can't possibly get!"
"You've already saved us once," Kellen said, refusing to let Cilarnen give in to despair. "You know more spells of the High Magick than anyone else between here and Armethalieh. You can make the tools. As for the power source...don't just give up. Besides, you're more than just a source of spells. You're the one with the best idea of Armethaliehan politics. We'll need your advice."
Cilarnen stared at Kellen as if Kellen had lost his mind.
"Think about it," Kellen said. "I never paid any attention. Idalia left the city more than a decade ago. But you...you know the families, the people. If someone can figure out a way to get a warning to them that they'll listen to, it might be just turn out to be you."
Cilarnen shook his head in disbelief. But he looked thoughtful.
Kardus insisted that Kellen share Cilarnen's meal, and Kellen was grateful for the strength that it lent him, for he realized that he had another stop to make before he could return to the comfort of his bed.
Redhelwar, the Commander of the Elven Army, had shared in the spell-price for the Working, and like all the others, was still recovering from its effects.
From Idalia, Kellen knew that Redhelwar already knew all that she had learned. But what Kellen did not know was what Redhelwar intended to do about it. When Cilarnen had first come with his cryptic warning, Redhelwar had set the Wildmages to discover what it truly meant before deciding what to do.
Now he knew.
If the Demons got Armethalieh...
They have everything they want. Everything they were waiting to get before they attacked us openly. And if they can convince Armethalieh to attack us...
The thought made him feel sick. Against Armethalieh---even with the power of the High Mages on the Armethaliehan side---the Allied Army would be fairly evenly matched. Which meant both forces would cut each other to pieces in a long, bloody, drawn-out war. Armethalieh would give no quarter. The Demons would see to that. They would make sure that the Golden City was convinced that the Elves, the Wildmages, and anyone who fought at their side had to be utterly destroyed.
And when it was over, no matter who won, there would be no victory.
So we can't fight them. We can't possibly surrender to them. There's no place we can run from them---I'm sure the Endarkened will see to that. We've got to keep that war from happening.
He walked up the slope to Redhelwar's scarlet pavilion. Ninolion, Redhelwar's adjutant, was waiting inside the doorway and ushered Kellen in out of the wind with the briefest of Elven courtesies.
Kellen stood inside the doorway, waiting to be noticed.
The Army's General was alone at his worktable, making changes to the great map that represented the eastern portion of the Elven Lands. Maps fascinated Kellen, though they were largely a mystery to him: In Armethalieh, the world had stopped at the City walls, so of course in the City, the creation and study of maps---aside from maps of the streets of the City---were among the many things that were strictly anathema, forbidden to Mageborn and Commons alike. Before Kellen had come to live among the Elves, he had never imagined that the world could be depicted as a series of marks on vellum. Well, actually, he'd never imagined the world at all, come to that.
Under Master Belesharon's tutelage at the House of Sword and Shield in Sentarshadeen, he had learned a little---a very little---of how to read them, and so he could tell that this one represented not only Ysterialpoerin and its surrounding forest, but the Army camped outside it. Its scale was such that it included even the two Elven cities to the north of Ysterialpoerin, Lerkalpoldara and Realthataladon, and the mountains that surrounded them.
But north even of them, Redhelwar was making careful marks upon the map, at various points along the Border.
At last Redhelwar glanced up. "I See You, Kellen Knight-Mage. Be welcome at my hearth. It is my hour to drink tea, and I would be honored if you would join me."
"It is always a joy to drink tea in the pavilion of a friend," Kellen answered. The proper response came easily to him now, though once finding the right words for the intricate verbal dance of Elven courtesy would have baffled and frustrated him. But Elves did not hurry---if there was one lesson that Kellen had had to learn the hard way, it was that one. They were creatures of age-honed ritual and politeness, and---except when actually using War Manners---sometimes maddeningly indirect speech.
But at the moment nobody was actually attacking, he'd be glad of a cup of tea, and he'd welcome the chance to collect his thoughts before finding out what Redhelwar's was thinking---and figuring out if he had to try to change the Elven Commander's mind.
Redhelwar gestured him to a seat, and Kellen sank into it gratefully.
In the fashion that Kellen had become used to over the past several moonturns, Redhelwar then began a seemingly-idle discussion of the weather---cold, though after the last series of severe storms, they could expect only moderate snow for the next few sennights---and the entertaining seasonal menu they had been granted through the generosity of Kindolhinadetil, Viceroy of Ysterialpoerin, who had made sure that the Army was well-supplied with both fresh and preserved food.
Apparently "entertaining seasonal menu" meant they were eating the greenneedle trees of the Heart Forest; Kellen tried not to think too hard about that, but he'd eaten a lot of things he never thought he'd eat since he'd been Banished from the City.
"One observes that the other Wildmages are still abed," Redhelwar remarked shrewdly when they both had full mugs of Winter Spice tea before them. "Even Jermayan, with Ancaladar's power to draw upon, has not ventured forth to taste the pleasures of the day." "The pleasures of the day" being a joke, or as much of one as Redhelwar ever made.
And Jermayan is probably the strongest of all the Wildmages, with Ancaladar's power to draw on.
"I was restless," Kellen admitted. "And I am well-served for my impetuousness."
"Nevertheless, you have come in a good hour, for matters have...progressed since They chose to move so openly against us, and I would welcome your counsel," Redhelwar said, allowing the conversation to turn to practical matters at last.
The Army's General gestured to the map spread out upon the table. "Scouts have come from Lerkalpoldara and Realthataladon, bringing news of the Borders. The Enemy sends its creatures to gather in strength---here, and here, and here---the Ice Trolls and the Frost Giants---and those who can pass through the Boundary-wards---the ice-drakes, the Deathwings, the Coldwarg, and others---freely do so in greater kind and number than have been seen since the Great War. They once used the Lost Lands as their nursery, but I think that now that time has passed. Now Their creatures will use the Elven Lands as a gateway to harry the Wild Lands to the west and south...and I do not think we can protect them."
"It's another feint," Kellen said slowly, reasoning it out. "They must know we've discovered Their agent in Armethalieh. Anigrel wants to open the City to Them. If he succeeds, They win."
"Yet we cannot abandon our allies to Their attack," Redhelwar said. "And those who might defend them are here, gathered at Andoreniel's word. I sent to Sentarshadeen as soon as Idalia told me the news from the City, and only this morning I have received Andoreniel's answering word to me."
Kellen was impressed. Even a unicorn couldn't cover the distance to Sentarshadeen and back in just four days, and that would have left no time for the royal Council to debate its reply. Though Andoreniel was the king of the Elves, he did not act without the advice and consent of his Council.
"It would be good to know how this was done---and to hear the words of Andoreniel," Kellen said carefully.
"You will wonder how word could travel so fast in winter, without magic to aid it," Redhelwar said with a faint smile. "Yet we have never relied upon magic as you humans do. The weather was calm enough to send birds; they flew to the signaling towers, and the towers passed the message along by means of sunlight and mirrors through the mountains until it reached a place where it must be transferred to the birds once more. Andoreniel's word to me returned the same way.