Experience New York Times bestselling author Richard A. Knaak's classic Dragonrealm series in this exciting omnibus--three unforgettable tales, plus an original bonus novella in print for the first time ever!
Betrothed to the disfigured King Melicard of Talak, Princess Erini begins to fear her burgeoning magical powers. She soon discovers that an obsessive vendetta has led the king to cast a sinister spell that conjures the shadow creature Darkhorse . . . and worse, the mad sorcerer Shade.
THE SHROUDED REALM
Long before the Dragonrealm, a race of master wizards ruled Nimth with little regard for the laws of nature. Forced into desperate escape to a mysterious world, the Vraad soon discover their new home is unyielding. Only Dru Zeree, with the aid of the shadowy creature who will become Darkhorse, may be able to save them.
CHILDREN OF THE DRAKE
Bitterness between factions is tarnishing the Vraad's new home. As Lord Barakas attempts to rule all, the wizard Dru Zeree's daughter discovers their adopted world has another plan. Worse, her only hope is himself transforming into the enigma that will someday call itself Shade.
Morgis, son of the Blue Dragon and comrade-in-arms to the legendary Gryphon, has lingered in the land of the Wolf Raiders to help fight the remnants of the dark empire. However, with the Aramites' fall from power, he is about to discover that other ancient, dread forces have risen again.
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October 18, 2010
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Excerpt from Legends of the Dragonrealm, Vol. II by Richard A. Knaak
YOU WILL RAISE me a demon.
The words were seared into Drayfitt's mind. The chilling visage of his monarch haunted him still. There had never been any doubt that the king had been serious. He was a humorless, bitter man who had, over the last nine years since his horrible disfigurement, become everything that he had at one time despised. The palace reflected that change; where once it had been a bright, proud structure, it was now a dark, seemingly unoccupied shell.
Yet, this was Drayfitt's ruler, the man who represented what he had sworn his loyalty to more than a century before. Thus, the gaunt, elderly man had simply bowed and said, "Yes, King Melicard."
Ahh, Ishmir, Ishmir, he brooded. Why could you not have waited until my training was complete before you flew off to die with the other Dragon Masters? Better yet, why did you have to train me at all?
The chamber he occupied was one of the deepest beneath the palace and the only one suited to the task at hand. The seal on the door had been that of Rennek II, Melicard's great-great-grandfather and a man known for dark tastes. The chamber had been cleaned so that Drayfitt could make his marks, etch the lines of the barrier into the floor. The cage, a thing of enchantment, not iron, filled much of the room. He was uncertain as to what dimensions a demon might possess, and much of what he did was guesswork, even with the aid of the book Quorin had located for the king. Still, Drayfitt had not outlived most of his contemporaries by leaping blindly into things.
The room was dark, save for a single torch and two dim candles, the latter necessary for reading the pages of the tome. The flickering torch raised demons of its own, dancing shadows that celebrated the coming spell with gleeful movements. Drayfitt would have preferred the place brilliantly lit, if only for his own nerves, but Melicard had decided to watch, and darkness preceded and followed the king wherever he stalked. Shifting, the ancient sorcerer could feel the strength of Melicard's presence behind him. His lord and master was obsessed--obsessed with the destruction of the Dragon Kings and their ilk.
"How much longer?" Melicard's voice throbbed with anticipation, like a child about to receive a favorite candy.
Drayfitt glanced up. He did not turn to his ruler, but rather studied the design in the floor. "I am ready to begin, your majesty."
The voice of Quorin, the king's counselor, abruptly cut through the sorcerer's thoughts like a well-honed knife. Mal Quorin was the closest thing Talak had to a prime minister since the demise of old Hazar Aran, the last man to hold the position, two years ago. The king had never replaced him, though Quorin did nearly everything the prime minister was supposed to do. Drayfitt hated the counselor; it was the short, catlike man who had first reported to Melicard that there was a spellcaster in the city--and one sworn to the king. If there was any justice, any demon he succeeded in summoning up would demand the counselor as a sacrifice--if a demon could stomach such a foul morsel.
"One was beginning to wonder, Drayfitt, if your heart was in this. Your loyalty has been... cool."
"If you would like to take my place, Counselor Quorin, I will be happy to let you. I certainly would not want to stand in the way of someone obviously more well-versed in sorcery than myself."
Quorin would have replied, always seeking the last word, but Melicard cut him off. "Leave Drayfitt to his task. Successful results are all that matter."
The king supported Drayfitt--for now. The old man wondered how long that support would last if he failed to produce the creature his liege desired. He would be lucky to keep his head much less his quiet, simple position as Master of Appointments. Now, the latter was probably lost to Drayfitt, success or not; why waste a man of his power on a minor political post even if it was all Drayfitt had ever wanted?
Enough dreaming of things lost! he reprimanded himself. The time had come to summon the demon, if only to tweak the well-groomed mustache of Quorin.
Neither the king nor his counselor understood how simple the summoning itself actually was. There had been times when he had been tempted to tell them, to see the disbelief on their faces, but his brother had at least taught him that the secrets of sorcery were the most precious things a mage owned. To maintain his position and to counterbalance those like Quorin, Drayfitt had to build himself up as much as possible. It would have been laughable if it had not been so tragic. There was a chance that success might get them all killed. The barrier might not hold whatever it was, if anything, he summoned.
Raising one hand in a theatrical manner he had practiced long and hard to perfect, Drayfitt touched the fields of power with his mind's eye.
The summoning was simplicity itself; surviving the encounter with whatever happened to be snared was another matter.
"Drazeree's ghost!" Quorin blurted in growing fear.
Drayfitt would have smiled, had he heard the outburst, but his mind was on the link he had created. There was only the link--no chamber, no king, not even his own body. He was invisible--no--formless. It was an experience that he had never before achieved and the wonder of it almost proved fatal, for in maintaining his link with the spell, he nearly broke the one binding him to his mortal form. When the sorcerer realized his error, he immediately corrected it. A lesson learned, Drayfitt realized... almost too late.
Before him, the stream of light that was the mental representation of his bond disappeared into a gleaming tear in reality. He knew that the tear was visible to the king and Counselor Quorin, a sign of success for them to mull over while he moved up. If failure greeted him at any point onward, he hoped that Melicard would realize that he had tried his best, that he had proved his loyalty.
A cold presence with a feel of great age grazed the outer boundaries of his seeking mind. Ancient was not a satisfactory description for such a creature. A desire to abandon the summoning washed over Drayfitt, but he fought it, understanding that it was a ploy by the creature he had snared. The analogy of a fisherman who has caught the grandfather of all sea monsters did not escape him. What he had snared was powerful--and very reluctant to the notion of being forcibly brought to Drayfitt's world. It was ready to fight him with all weapons available to it.
Some would have fought the demon here, in this place with no name, but Drayfitt knew that he could only bind his catch if he battled it from the physical as well as the spiritual planes. The earth, whose existence was interwoven with both the fields of power and his own life, was his anchor.
As he retreated toward his body, the sorcerer was amazed at the ease with which he drew the demon after him. The struggle was far less than he expected, almost as if the demon had some strong bond of its own with his world, a bond it could not deny. That a thing spawned out there could have any tie with the mortal plane disturbed him. The thought of a trap occurred to him, but it was a brief notion. Such a trap was too daring; the closer they moved back to Drayfitt's domain, the more difficult it would be for the demon to free itself.
The sorcerer felt the creature's growing frustration. It was fighting him--constantly--but like someone forced to do battle on a number of fronts. Had they met on equal terms, both with their respective abilities intact, the elderly sorcerer knew that he would have been no more than a breath to his adversary. Here, the battle was in Drayfitt's favor.
The return seemed endless, far longer than when he had departed his body. As he finally neared his goal, he was struck by a great wave of panic emanating from the demon. The link stretched as he had not known it could and, for a moment, it felt as if part of the demon had broken away.
Nonetheless, his prey was with him. Body and mind began to meld. Other things--sounds, pressures, odors--demanded a measure of his attention.
"He's stirring again!"
"You see, Quorin? I told you he had not failed. Drayfitt is loyal to me."
"Forgive me, my liege. Three hours we've stood here, waiting. You said he'd dare not die and, as usual, you were correct."
The voices echoed from a vast distance, as if the spellcaster were hearing them through a long, hollow tube... yet, both men surely stood nearby. Drayfitt allowed his senses time to recover and then, still facing the magical cage he had created, opened his eyes.
At first glance he was disappointed. The rip in the middle of empty space still remained and nothing stood within the confines of the barrier. Around him, the shadows still danced merrily, among them the two distended forms of his companions. The shadows of the king and the counselor loomed over his head while his own seemed to crawl across the floor and up a good piece of the far wall. Most of the pattern that he had drawn on the floor was smothered in darkness as well.
"Well?" Quorin asked testily.
The link still remained, but it no longer extended beyond the tear, instead twisting uselessly back into the shadowy regions within the boundaries of the magical cage. The rip was already closing. Drayfitt, confused, stared at the empty scene for several seconds. He had succeeded--at least all indications pointed to that. Why, then, did he have nothing to show for his efforts?
It was then he noticed the difference between the flickering dancers on the walls and the stillness of the inky darkness within the barrier. The shadows did not move when they should and even appeared to have depth. Drayfitt had the unnerving sensation that to stare too long was to fall into those shadows--and never stop falling.
"Drayfitt?" The king's confidence was turning to uncertainty tinged with burgeoning anger. He had not yet noticed the difference in the shadows.
The gaunt sorcerer slowly rose, a wave of his hand indicating that silence was needed. With one negligible thought, he broke the link. If he was mistaken and there was no demon, Melicard would soon have his hide.
Stepping nearer--though not so near that he was in danger of accidently crossing the barrier--Drayfitt examined the magical cage with a thoroughness that left the king and counselor fidgeting. When Drayfitt saw the shadows twist away, he knew he had succeeded.
There was something in his trap.
"Do not try to play me for a fool," he whispered defiantly. "I know you are there. Show yourself--but beware of trying any tricks! This cage has surprises designed just for your kind, demon!"
"What's that you're doing?" Quorin demanded, starting to step forward. It was clear he still assumed that Drayfitt had failed and that the sorcerer was now stalling in the hopes of saving his neck.
"Stay where you are!" Drayfitt commanded without looking.
The counselor froze, stunned by the sheer intensity of the spellcaster's tone.
Turning his attention back to the barrier, the elderly man repeated his earlier command, this time for the other two to hear. "I said show yourself! You will obey!"
He waved a hand in the air, using it to guide the lines of power to the results he wanted. He was not disappointed.
It howled! The noise was so horrifying that Drayfitt's concentration all but broke. Behind him, Quorin swore and stumbled back. Whether Melicard was also shaken, the sorcerer could not say. Even the king had his limits. As the ringing in his ears died down, Drayfitt wondered if everyone in the palace--everyone in Talak--had heard the demon's howl of pain. He almost regretted what he had done... but he had to show the creature who was master. So it had always been written.
At first, he did not notice the darkness draw inward, thicken even, if such a thing was possible. Only when the first limbs became recognizable--and then the fact that there were four of them, all legs--did he fully appreciate his success. The demon had finally, completely, bowed to his will.
The three men stood mesmerized by the transformation occurring before them. Forgetting their uncertainty, the king and counselor joined Drayfitt near the outer edge of the barrier and watched as a trunk joined the legs, and a long, thick neck stretched forth from one end, while a sleek, black tail sprouted from the other.
A steed! Some sort of ghostly steed! The head coalesced into a distinct shape, and Drayfitt amended his opinion. It was more like the shadow of some great horse. The body and limbs were distended, changing as the demon moved, and the torso... The spellcaster again had the uneasy feeling that if he stared too long he would fall into the demon and keep falling forever and ever. Anxious to rid himself of the idea, he turned his head, only to find the face of the king.
Unaware of the sorcerer's nervous gaze, the disfigured king giggled at the sight of his new prize. "You have done me a wondrous service, Drayfitt! This is all I asked for and more! I have my demon!"
With a smooth, swift motion, the huge head of the dark steed turned to face the trio. For the first time, the ice-blue eyes became noticeable. Drayfitt returned his gaze to his prisoner. He shivered, but not nearly so much as he did when the demon arrogantly shouted, "You mortal fools! You children! How dare you pull me back into this world! Don't you realize the havoc you've brought forth?"
Drayfitt heard a sharp intake of breath from beside him and knew immediately that Melicard was mere moments from one of his fits of rage. Not wanting the king to do something foolish--something that might release the demon in the process--the spellcaster shouted back, "Silence, monster! You have no rights here! By the spells I have performed, you are my servant and will do my bidding!"
The black horse roared with mocking laughter. "I am not quite the demon you originally sought, little mortal! I am more and I am less! You caught me because my link to this world is stronger than that of any creature of the Void!" The steed's head pressed against the unseen walls of his cage, eyes seeking to burn through Drayfitt's own. "I am the one called Darkhorse, mage! Think hard, for it is a name you surely must know!"
"What is he talking about?" Quorin dared to mutter. He had one hand pressed against his chest, as if his heart were seeking escape.
In the dim torchlight, neither of his companions could see Drayfitt's face grow ash white. He knew of Darkhorse and suspected the king did as well. There were legends, some only a decade old, about the demon steed, a creature whose former companions included the warlock Cabe Bedlam, the legendary Gryphon, and, most frightening of all, the enigmatic, cursed immortal who called himself Shade.
"Darkhorse!" the sorcerer finally succeeded in uttering, as a whisper.
Darkhorse reared high, seemingly ready to burst through the ceiling. In a mixture of regret and anger, the demon steed retorted, "Aye! Darkhorse! Exiled by choice to the Void in the hopes of saving this mortal plane from the horror of a friend who is also my worst enemy! This world's worst nightmare!"
"Silence him, Drayfitt! I want no more of this babbling!" Melicard's voice had a dangerous edge to it that the spellcaster had come to recognize. He feared it almost as much as he feared what now struggled within the barrier.
"Babbling? If only it were so!" Darkhorse shifted so that it was now the king who faced his inhuman glare. "Don't you listen? Can't you understand? In summoning me back, you've pulled him along, for I was his prison! Now he roams free to do whatever ill he so desires!"
"Who?" Drayfitt dared to ask, despite the growing rage of his liege at the lack of obedience. "Who is it that I have accidently released?" It was the thing he had feared all during the preparations, that he would accidently loose some demon on the Dragonrealm.
Darkhorse turned his massive head back to the sorcerer and, oddly, there was a sadness inherent in both the chilling eyes and the unholy stentorian voice. "The most tragic being I have ever known! A friend who would give his life and a friend who would take yours without a second's care! A demon and a hero, yet both are the same man!" The spectral horse hesitated and quietly concluded, "The warlock Shade!"
SO DIFFERENT FROM Gordag-Ai. So big!
Erini Suun-Ai peered through the curtain of her coach window, ignoring the worried looks of her two ladies-in-waiting. A light wind sent her long, blond tresses fluttering. The breeze was pleasantly cool against her pale, soft skin and she leaned into it, directing the delicate, perfect features of her oval face so that the wind stroked every inch. Her dress, wide, colorful, and flowing, made it impossible to sit directly next to the window, and Erini would have preferred to take it off, hating it the way it ballooned her slim figure.
Her ladies-in-waiting whispered to one another, making disparaging remarks. They did not care to see their new home, the huge, overwhelming city-state of Talak. Only duty to their mistress made them come. A princess, especially one destined to be a queen, did not travel alone. The driver and the cavalry unit escorting her did not count; they were men. A woman of substance travelled with companions or, at the very least, servants. Such was the way of things in Gordag-Ai, in the lands once ruled by the Bronze Dragon.
Erini's mind was unconcerned with things of her former homeland. Talak, with its massive ziggurats and countless proud banners flying in the wind, was her new home, her kingdom. Here, after a suitable courtship, she would marry King Melicard I and assume her duties as wife and co-monarch. The future held infinite possibilities and Erini wondered which ones awaited her. Not all of them would be pleasant.
The coach hit a bump, sending the princess back against her seat, her companions squealing with ladylike distaste at the rough road. Erini grimaced at their actions. They represented her father, who had made the marriage pact with the late, unfortunate King Rennek IV almost eighteen years ago. Melicard had been a young boy just growing into manhood and she a newborn babe. Erini had met Melicard only once, when she had been perhaps five, so she doubted his impression of her had been very favorable.
What made all three of them nervous were the rumors that floated about the Dragonrealm as to the nature of Melicard. There were those who called him a fanatical tyrant, though none of his own people ever talked that way. There were rumors that he trafficked with necromancers, and that he was a cold, lifeless master. Most widespread of all were the horrible tales of his appearance.
"He has only one true arm," Galea, the stouter of the two companions, had whispered at one point. "They say that he cut it off himself, so as to wear that elfwood one he now sports."
"He has a lust for the worst aspects of sorcery," Magda, plain but domineering, uttered sagely at another time. "A demon it was that is said to have stolen his face so that the king must always hide in shadow!"
After such horrible statements as these, the two ladies would eye one another with their perfectly matching Poor Princess Erini! expressions. At times, they somehow succeeded in looking like twins.
The princess did not know how to take the rumors. She knew it was true that Melicard sported an arm carved of rare elfwood, a magical wood, but not why. Erini also knew that Melicard had suffered some catastrophe almost a decade before that had left him bereft of that original arm and disfigured as well. Even magical healing had its limits at times, and something involved with the incident made it impossible to repair the damage to any great extent. Erini knew she was marrying a crippled and possibly horrifying man, but her brief memories of gazing up fondly at the tall, handsome boy had combined with her sense of duty to her parents to form a determination matched by few.
That did not mean she did not wonder--and worry.
Returning her gaze to the spectacle outside, she studied the great walls. They were gigantic, though the arrogant ziggurats within thrust higher. Against any normal invader, these walls would be unbreachable. Talak, however, had always been in the shadow of the Tyber Mountains, lair of the true master of the city, the late and unlamented Gold Dragon, Emperor of the Dragon Kings. Drakes had little problem with walls, whether in their birthforms or the humanoid ones they wore more often.
Things have altered so much. She had, as a child, understood that, as queen, she would rule beside Melicard but that, at any time, the Gold Dragon might come and make demands of the city. Now, the Dragon Kings were in a disarray; with no heir to take the place of the Dragon Emperor--though there were rumors about something in the Dagora Forest far to the south--Talak was, for the first time, independent.
An army of majestic trumpets sounded, giving Erini a start. The coach made no move to slow, which meant the gates had been opened and they would proceed straight through. The sides of the road began to fill with the locals, the farmers and villagers, some clad in their holiday best, others looking as if they had just come from the fields. They were cheering, but she expected that. Melicard's advisors would have arranged such a showing. Yet, Erini was somewhat skilled at reading faces and emotions, and in the dirty, worn features of the people cheering her she did see honest hope, honest acceptance. They wanted a queen, welcomed the change.
The rumors about Melicard whispered mockingly in the back of her mind. She forced herself to ignore them and waved to the people.
At that moment, the coach passed through the gates of Talak and the rumors were once again buried as Erini devoured the wonders of the inner city with her eyes.
This was the market district. Bright, clashing tents and wagons competed with decorated buildings, many of them tiny, multileveled ziggurats, exact copies of the titans looming over all else. The more permanent structures appeared to be inns and taverns, a cunning move to snare the unwary traveler who might, merely because it was so convenient, end up buying a few extra things from the bazaar. Even more banners flew within the walls, most bearing the patriotic symbol of Talak these past nine years: a sword crossing a stylized drake head. Melicard's warning to the remaining drake clans, including the Silver Dragon's, to whose domain the city was now geographically annexed.
Galea and Madga were oohing and aahing over everything, having finally given in to growing curiosity and forgetting that they did not want to be here. Erini smiled slightly at that and returned her attention to her new kingdom.
Clothing styles differed little here, she noted abstractly, though they tended to be even brighter, yet more comfortable in appearance than the bedsheet she was wearing. There was also a propensity toward military uniforms, a confirmation of one rumor that Melicard was still expanding his army. A troop of footsoldiers saluted smartly as she passed, as alike as a row of eggs--with shells of iron. The precision pleased her, though she hoped that there would be no need for all this training. The best armies are those that never have to fight, her father had once said.
The coach continued on its way through the city. The market district gave way to more stately structures, obviously the homes of an upper class, either merchants or low-level functionaries. There was a market here as well, but this district was subdued in comparison to that of the more common folk. Erini found this section pleasant to view, but rather lacking in true life. Here, the shadowy masks of politics were first worn. She knew that from this point on reality would be slightly askew. Without hardly being aware of it, her posture stiffened and her smile grew empty. It was time to play the part she had been trained for, even though she had not yet met her betrothed. For the lowest courtiers on up, the princess had to wear a mask of strength. Their loyalty to her depended on their belief in her power.
Power. Her fingers twitched, but she forced them still. In the excitement and then the uneasiness of finally arriving in Talak, she had almost dropped her guard. Erini glanced at her ladies. Magda and Galea were staring at the palace, awed by what was the greatest edifice in the city, and had not noticed the involuntary movements. The princess took a deep breath and tried to steady herself. She dared not trust them with her problem.
What would she do about Melicard, though?
By the time the coach reached the outskirts of the royal palace, she felt she was ready. The turbulence of her tired mind had been forced down again. Now, her only concern was making the proper impression when Melicard came to meet her at the bottom of the palace steps, as was custom.
"Don't these people know anything about protocol?" Magda sniffed imperiously. "The royal steps are all but bare of the members of the court. The entire aristocracy should be here to meet their new queen."
Erini, who had been straightening her clothing out of nervousness, looked up. Pulling aside the curtain of her window, the princess saw what, in her anxiety, she had not noticed before. It was true; there were no more than a handful of people awaiting her arrival and even at a distance the princess could see that none of them matched Melicard's description in the slightest.
The coachman reined the horses to a halt, and one of Erini's footmen jumped down and opened the door for her. As the princess descended, she caught sight of a short, graceful man with odd eyes and stylish mustache who reminded her of nothing less than a pet panther her mother had once bought from a merchant of Zuu. Erini felt an almost instant dislike for the newcomer despite the toothy smile he gave her. This could only be Melicard's counselor, Mal Quorin, a man obviously ambitious. What was he doing here instead of Melicard?
"Your majesty." Quorin took the tiny hand that the princess forced herself to thrust out and kissed it in a manner that suggested he was tasting her as a predator might taste its prey before devouring it.
She gave him her most courteous smile and withdrew her hand as soon as he released it. You will not make a puppet out of me, grimalkin. His nostrils flared momentarily, but he remained outwardly pleasant.
"Is my Melicard ill? I had hoped he would be here to greet me." She fought hard to keep emotion of any sort out of her words.
Quorin straightened his jacket. His pompous, gray military outfit made him look like a parody of some great general and Erini hoped he was not actually commander of the king's armies. "His majesty begs your forgiveness, princess, and asks that you indulge him in this. I trust you were informed as to his appearance."
"Surely my betrothed would not hide from me?"
The counselor gave her the ghost of a smile. "Until word arrived that you had reached the age of consent set down by your father, Melicard had completely forgotten about the pact. Please don't take it as any offense, lady, but you will find he is still trying to cope with it. His physical... detriments... only add to the difficulty. He tries to see as few people as possible, you understand."
"I understand far better than you think, counselor. You will take me to King Melicard now. I will not shun him because of his past misfortune. We have been paired almost since my birth; his life, his existence, is my tantamount concern."
Quorin bowed. "Then, if you will follow me, I will escort you to him. The two of you will have a private audience... fitting, I should think, for the beginning of your courtship."
Erini noted the hint of sarcasm but said nothing. Mal Quorin summoned an aide who was to assist the princess's people with settling down. Her ladies-in-waiting prepared to follow her but she ordered them to go with the others.
"This is not proper," Magda intoned. "One of us should be with you."
"I think I will be safe in the palace of my husband-to-be, Magda." Erini gave the counselor a pointed glance. "Especially with Counselor Quorin as company."
"Your parents ordered--"
"Their authority ended when we entered Talak. Captain!" The cavalry officer rode up to her and saluted. She could not recall his name, but knew he was inherently obedient to her from past experience. "Please help escort my companions to our rooms. I will also want to see you before you return to Gordag-Ai."
The captain, a thin, middle-aged man with narrow eyes and a hungry look, cleared his throat. "Yes... your highness."
Erini pondered briefly his hesitation but knew now was not the time to ask about it. She turned back to Quorin, who was waiting with slight impatience. "Lead on."
Offering his hand, the counselor led her up the long set of steps into the towering palace. As they walked, Quorin pointed out this object and that, relating their histories like a hired tour guide to Erini, who pretended to listen for the sake of appearance. Several aides and minor functionaries fell in behind them, as did a silent honor guard. All very out of place, but the princess had been warned that things had taken a strange turn in the years of Melicard's rule. So far, only Mal Quorin and the king's absence disturbed her.
The palace was spacious to say the least, but much of it had an unused look, as if only a few people actually lived or worked within its walls. It was true that Melicard was the last of his line now, but most rulers still surrounded themselves with a gaggle of fawning courtiers and endless numbers of servants. Melicard, it seemed, maintained only what was necessary.
Has he secluded himself that much? the princess worried. His state of mind concerned her far more than whatever scars he bore physically. On that rested the fate of his kingdom.
Counselor Quorin was studying her curiously and Erini realized they had finally come to a stop at a massive set of doors. Two fearsome guards, hooded, kept a grim watch, armed with axes that stood taller than she did. Erini wondered if they were human.
"I shall be leaving you alone now, Princess Erini. I'm certain you and the king will want your privacy."
She almost wanted him to stay. Now that the princess stood within mere seconds of meeting her betrothed, the potential ramifications of her reaction to Melicard's features struck her dumb. Would hate or pity be the only bond tying the two of them together? She prayed it would not be, yet...
Quorin snapped his fingers. The two gargantuan sentinels stepped aside and the massive doors slowly swung inward. Within the chamber was only darkness. Not even a single candle glimmered in invitation.
The counselor turned back to her and his catlike face wore a matching feline smile. "He awaits within, your majesty. You have only to enter."
Those words, coming from him, strengthened Erini as nothing else could have. With a regal nod of her head to Counselor Quorin and the two guards, she walked calmly into the pitch-black room.
Her eyes sought vainly to compensate for the utter lack of light, as the doors slowly closed behind her. Erini fought hard not to turn back to the comfort of the light. She was a princess of Gordag-Ai and soon would be queen of Talak. It would be a disgrace to her ancestors and her future subjects if she showed her growing fear.
Not until the doors had closed completely did she hear the breathing of another within the chamber. Heavy footsteps echoed as somebody slowly walked toward her. Erini's heart pounded and her breathing quickened. She heard the other fiddle with something and then a single match burst into brilliant life, blinding her briefly.
"Forgive me," a deep, smooth voice whispered. "I sometimes grow so accustomed to the shadows that I forget how lost others can be. I shall light us some candles."
Erini's eyes adjusted as the burning match lit a candle sitting on a hitherto unseen table. The match died before she could study the hand that held it, but the one that reached for the candlestick, the left hand, gave her a start. It was silver and moved like the hand of a puppet. Neither it nor the arm it was attached to was made of flesh, but rather some other, stiffer substance that played at life.
Elfwood. The tale was true!
Then, the hand was forgotten as the candle was lifted into the air and Princess Erini caught her first glimpse of the man she was to marry.
The gasp that escaped her echoed harshly in the dark chamber.
THE INNKEEPER OF the Huntsman Tavern was a bear of a man named Cyrus who had once had the misfortune of owning a similar establishment called the Wyvern's Head some years ago. The hordes of the drake Lord Toma had ravaged it with the rest of the countryside, concentrating especially on the grand city of Mito Pica, where the powerful warlock Cabe Bedlam had been brought up in secret. Toma had not expected to find Bedlam there and was making the region an example to any who would dare protect, even unknowingly, a potential enemy of the Dragon Kings. Cyrus, along with many other survivors, had taken what he could salvage and made his way to Talak. The people of Mito Pica were welcome in Talak, for Melicard shared their hatred for the drakes. For a brief time, Cyrus had even been one of the raiders the king had supplied in secret, raiders who harassed and killed drakes with the help of old magic. The innkeeper found that he missed his former calling. A good thing, too. It was the raid on the home of Bedlam and his bride that had led to the king's maiming. The objects of the raid, the late Dragon Emperor's hatchlings, had completely escaped Melicard's grasp.
In all that time and the time that passed after, Cyrus had never told a soul that the warlock Bedlam had once been a serving man in his inn. The beginning of the end of his first inn was etched in his mind. It had started with a vague image. The image of a cloaked and hooded man sitting in the shadows, waiting silently for service...
Like the man who sat in the corner booth now.
Had his hair not gone gray long ago; Cyrus felt it would have done so now. He looked around quickly, but no one seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary and there was not a blessed soul to wait on the mysterious personage.
Just when I've set me roots down. Wringing his hands, the innkeeper made his way through the crowds and over to the dark table. He squinted, wondering why it was so dark even though there were candles nearby. It was as if the shadows had come with the stranger.
"What can I get ya?" Make it something quick and easy! he begged silently. Then leave, by Hirack, while I've still got a place!
The left hand, gloved, emerged from the enveloping cloak. A single coin clattered against the wooden table. "An ale. No food."
"Right away!" Thanking Hirack, a minor god of merchants, Cyrus retrieved the coin and hustled back to the counter, where he swiftly overfilled a mug. He would give the warlock the ale, the fellow would drink it, and the innkeeper would bid him a fond farewell. In his haste, Cyrus bumped several customers and spilled ale on a few more, but he did not notice. Nothing mattered but to serve his unwanted guest and get as far away as possible.
"Here ya go!" He slammed the ale down right in front of the figure and made to leave, but the hand, with astonishing speed and bone-crushing strength, caught his own and trapped him there.
"Sit down a moment." The slight amusement in the hooded one's tone made Cyrus go pale. He sat down with a heavy thud. The warlock released his hand, almost as if daring the innkeeper to run away.
"What city is this?"
It was an odd question, seeing as how a spellcaster of all people should know such a simple thing. Despite that thought, however, Cyrus could not stop himself from responding immediately. "Talak."
"Hmmm. I noticed a commotion earlier. What was the cause?"
Cyrus blinked in a mixture of fear and shock as his mouth formed the answers without his aid. "King Melicard's betrothed, the Princess Erini of Gordag-Ai, arrived only today."
For the first time, the figure in the dusky hood reacted. Cyrus was certain it was confusion despite being unable to make out the warlock's features. He had been trying to see the man's face for several seconds, but there was something wrong with his eyes, for the other's visage never seemed in focus.
"'King Melicard'? What's happened to Rennek IV?"
"Rennek died some time back. He spent the last part of his life mad as a sprite." Where had this man been that he didn't know something common knowledge to everyone else?
"I've been far, much too far away, innkeeper."
Cyrus shook as it hit him that he had not asked the question out loud.
The warlock reached over and touched Cyrus on the forehead with one gloved finger of his right hand. "There are people of importance that I would know more about. You know their names. Tell me and I will let you return to your business."
It was impossible not to tell the hooded figure what he knew. The names that flashed through Cyrus's unwilling mind frightened him, so powerful and deadly the bearer of each one was. His mouth babbled tale after tale about each, mostly from things he had heard from patrons, much of it forgotten until now.
Finally, it ended. Cyrus fearfully felt himself black out.
THE WARLOCK WATCHED with little interest as the innkeeper, his mind fogged, rose from the table and returned to his duties. The mortal would remember nothing. No one would recall that he had been here. He could even stay long enough to finish the ale, something he had not had in ten years. The long lapse made the drink even sweeter.
Ten years, Shade thought as he stared into his mug. Only ten years have passed. I would've thought it longer.
Memories of endless struggling in the nothingness that had been his prison, the prison that was a part of his enemy and his friend, flashed through his mind. He had thought he would never touch the earth again.
Ten years. He took another sip of ale and could not help but smile again at circumstances. A small price to pay, actually, for what I've gained. A very small price to pay.
Shade put a hand to his head as a sharp pain lanced through his mind. It was as short-lived as the others he had experienced since his return, and he ignored it once it had passed. The warlock took another sip. Nothing would mar his moment of triumph, especially an insignificant little pain.
THE SINGLE TORCH, left by the mortals, had long ago burned itself out, but Darkhorse had no need of such things, anyway. He did not even notice when the light sputtered and died, so deeply was his mind buried in a mire of concerns, fears, and angers--none of which he had come to terms with yet. What distressed him most was that Shade roamed the Dragonrealm untouched, free to spread his madness across an unsuspecting and, in some ways, uncaring land.
And here I lay, helpless as a newborn, trapped by a mortal fool who shouldn't have the knowledge to do what he's done! Darkhorse laughed low, a mocking laugh aimed at himself. How he continually underestimated human ingenuity--and stupidity.
His pleas of freedom fell on deaf ears and mad minds. Nothing mattered more to Melicard than his quest to rid the realms of the drake clans, whether those drakes were enemies or not. That Shade had the potential to bring the lands down upon them all--human, drake, elf, and the rest--meant nothing to the disfigured monarch.
"What threat is a warlock compared to the bloody fury of the Dragon Kings?" Melicard had asked.
"Have you forgotten Azran Bedlam so soon?" Darkhorse had bellowed. "With his unholy blade, the Nameless, he slew a legion of drakes, including the Red Dragon himself!"
The king had smiled coldly at that. "For that, he had my admiration and thanks."
"They might've easily been humans, mortal! Azran was no less dangerous to his own kind!"
"The creature you call Shade has existed for as long as recorded memory, yet the world remains. If you wish, you may deal with him after you have served me. That seems fair."
It was futile to try and explain that always there had been someone to keep Shade in check and that someone had more often than not been Darkhorse. Other spellcasters had fought and beaten the warlock, true, but always the shadow steed had been, at the very least, in the background. Now, he was helpless.
In pent-up anger, Darkhorse had reared and kicked at the unbreakable, invisible wall, screaming, "Madman! Can you not hear me? Does your mind refuse to understand reality? Your damnable little obsession will never be fulfilled, and while you muster your fanatics Shade will bring both drake and human down! I know this!"
At that point, King Melicard had turned to the sorcerer beside him and said, "Teach him."
For his refusal to obey, Darkhorse had suffered. The old sorcerer Drayfitt had surprised him again, intertwining a number of painful subspells into the structure of the magical cage. The pain had not stopped until the jet-black stallion had been no more than a mass of shadow huddled on the floor. Finally, Melicard had simply turned and departed, pausing at the doorway only long enough to give some instructions to the spellcaster. With the king had gone the devious one, the mortal who was known as Counselor Quorin.
Alone with the elderly sorcerer, Darkhorse had pleaded his cause once more. Fruitlessly. Drayfitt was one of those men who embodied the worst and best trait of his race: blind loyalty.
And so here I remain, the spectral horse snorted in frustration. Here I remain.
"I once suffered a fate similar to the one facing you now," a familiar voice mocked. "Trapped with seemingly no way out. I think you can imagine how I felt."
Darkhorse rapidly drew himself together, all his power preparing for the worst.
The torch was suddenly ablaze again, but its flame was a deep red that bespoke of blood. Amidst the crimson shadows, a cloaked and hooded figure detached itself.
"Shade... or Madrac..." Darkhorse rumbled. "Come to mock only when you know for certain your hide is safe from harm."
The warlock bowed like a minstrel after a successful command performance. "Call me Madrac, if you will--or any other name, for that matter. I don't care. I've come to tell you something. I sat quietly drinking in a tavern, absorbing life itself for once. I remember, you see. I remember everything from every life. I recall the fatal day, the agony of being torn apart and restored to existence again and again and again! I recall more than I could ever recount to you!"
As long as he had known the human, Darkhorse had known a man condemned. Forever resurrected after each death, whether his body was whole or not, Shade was cursed to live lives alternately devoted to the dark and light sides of his nature. Each was only a shadow of the original spellcaster, however. Memories were so incomplete as to sometimes be nonexistent. Abilities altered. In desperation to be whole, each new personality even took on a secondary name of its own, such as Madrac, hoping that somehow he would be the final, immortal Shade. Now, after millennia, something had changed to make that possible. Understanding this, hope briefly spurred Darkhorse. "Then your curse is lifted; you can live in peace."
Shade chuckled bitterly and stepped forward. Raising his hood, he let the shadow steed stare into his face, or rather, the blurry mask that passed for it. "Not yet, my dear friend, not yet, but--Madrac is fading and I cannot be certain what sort of persona will replace him. A different one from those past, that much is evident. I felt the need to speak to you, though, to tell you, but..."
"If you can free me, I will do what I can for you, Shade."
"Free you? Don't be absurd! I rather enjoy the irony of this!"
The tone of the warlock's voice stirred the eternal's misgivings far more than the actual words did. Has the curse given way to something darker, something much more sinister? Darkhorse wondered. Shade's personality seemed to be swinging back and forth unpredictably. If the warlock had not been mad before, he soon would be under the pressure of this new torture.
Putting a hand to his forehead as if trying to relieve pain, Shade continued, "I also came to tell you this: I know where my mistake was made--where my spell went awry. I know why the 'immortality' I did receive turned out to be a never-ending agony. That can be rectified--this time."
He took a step closer to the magical cage. "You--you can do nothing to deter me. Not while you are trapped here. The spellcaster responsible for your pleasant little domain has touched upon Vraad sorcery to create the cage. Do you know what that means?"
Darkhorse did not respond at first, stunned as he was by the warlock's words, especially the last. "I know of Vraad sorcery. It no longer exists in this reality! The Vraad only live on in the seeds of their descendents; their magic has given way to the magic of this world!"
Shade inclined his head in a brief nod. "As you wish. Test the spell yourself--oh"--the spellcaster may have smiled; it was difficult for anyone other than him to know for certain--"that's right. You can't. You're inside, of course, and the patterns are outside, surrounding the barrier."
"Why did you come here, Shade? Merely to talk?"
"I came against my better judgment--but--I felt an overwhelming urge. Call it a whim."
"Call it conscience." Darkhorse retorted quietly.
"Conscience? I no longer have such a wasteful thing!" The hooded warlock stepped back, growing more indistinct with each step. There was always something not quite right, not quite normal, about Shade's magic, but Darkhorse could not say what.
"Enjoy your vast domain while you can, friend. When you see me next, if you ever do, I will at last be master of my fate--and so much more."
"Shade--" It was too late; the warlock dwindled away into nothing. The torch died the moment he was gone, plunging Darkhorse into the blackness again. It was the least of his concerns, though. The brief, puzzling visitation by him who was both enemy and friend interested him much, much more.
To say that Shade's return to him was contradictory to what the spellcaster should have done was putting it so mildly that Darkhorse had to laugh. Shade did nothing without reason, even if Shade might not know the reason himself. To simply come to mock Darkhorse was not enough; it was not the warlock's way in any of his countless lives, at least, the ones that the shadow steed knew about.
How old are you really? It was a question he had asked Shade time and again and it blossomed unbidden now, but there was no answer. The spellcaster could never recall. He only remembered a few vague things; that he, an ambitious sorcerer, had tried to gain mastery over powers that were, at the time, known simply as good and evil, dark and light. Perhaps colored by such primitive perceptions, Shade had made some fatal error in the final steps of his master spell. The powers were not his to command; he was theirs to play with. Perhaps the enchantment had even succeeded, but not the way the spellcaster had supposed. That still did not answer the question that always bothered the jet-black stallion. How old was Shade before we first encountered one another? Old enough to recall the Vraad? Old enough to--be one?
The thought was so insane, he cast it from his mind. Generations upon generations of Dragon Kings had come and gone since the brief, fiery appearance of the Vraad in this world. Humans were their descendants, yes, but nothing more.
All plans of immortality eventually fail. Even for the Vraad they did.
Darkhorse knew he was wandering away from the subject. He returned to the reason behind Shade's brief and mysterious visit. If not to mock his helplessness, then what explanation was there for the warlock's return? A warning? Perhaps. Possibly that and more. Darkhorse laughed low as another choice suggested itself. Could it be...?
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a key unlocking the chamber door. This is a busy day! I always thought prison was a lonely place!
The door swung open with a protesting squeal and torchlight flooded into the room. A guard stepped in and, his eyes focused on any spot other than the captive, lit the wall torch. As the human departed hastily, a second figure, tall and familiar, entered the chamber in a much more sedate manner. The gaunt, ancient form waited quietly while another guard, as anxious as the first to be gone, placed a stool midway between the door and the edge of the barrier.
When they were finally alone, Drayfitt spoke. His eyes drifted to a spot to the right of Darkhorse. He seemed a bit preoccupied, as if he could sense that someone else had been in the room. "So... demon. Have you reconsidered what my liege has requested of you?"
The shadow steed shifted to his left, trying without success to meet the gaze of the sorcerer. "That was a request? Do as he commands--without question--and he may free me some day to chase after Shade?"
"He is king and must be obeyed."
"You are well housebroken, spelltosser."
Drayfitt flinched, but he did not shift his gaze. It was apparent he knew what might happen if his eyes locked onto Darkhorse's. "I swore an oath long ago to protect this city. It is my home. Melicard is my lord and master."
"As I said, 'well housebroken'! Every king should have such a loyal pup for a sorcerer!"
"Would that I had never needed to make use of these powers!" Drayfitt's gaze turned upward, toward some memory. Darkhorse cursed silently.
"Why, then, did you?"
"The king needed a sorcerer. Counselor Quorin sought me out, knowing from his spies that I had held one minor political post or another for more than a century, something beyond the lifespan of a normal human, of course. Always before I was able to bury myself in the shuffle of bureaucracy, claim I was my own son or some such lie, and utilize just enough power to make men believe it. I have no desire to follow in my brother Ishmir's footsteps and die fighting the Dragon Kings. I also have no desire to see Talak destroyed, which is a very real threat should the Silver Dragon ever succeed in his claim to the Dragon Emperor's throne."
So many things had happened during the years of Darkhorse's absence that it was difficult for him to say what was the most astounding. That Cabe Bedlam, grandson of the greatest of the Dragon Masters, had bested the Dragon Emperor and fought his own father, mad Azran, to the death cheered the shadow steed, for he had met the young mortal and even travelled with him for a time. The death of the Gold Dragon had broken the drakes; who now could claim the throne of the highest of the Kings was arguable. Cabe Bedlam and his bride, the Lady of the Amber, had been raising the hatchlings of the Dragon Emperor alongside their own children, trying to teach the two races to coexist. Whether the drakes would accept the eldest royal male as their ruler when he finally came of age--whatever age was to a drake--was a question bandied about with no answer as of yet. Meanwhile, at least two of the remaining Dragon Kings had sought the throne of their "brother" on the basis that to wait for the young to mature was too risky, too speculative. Neither of the two could gain sufficient support among their kind, but the Silver Dragon was growing stronger every day. Drayfitt knew that the first step toward reunifying the lands would be to stamp out Talak, the enemy now within Silver's own domain. Having just gained its true independence only a few years ago, the city-state was not going to give in, not while Melicard was king.
"Mal Quorin whispers in his ear at every opportunity, urging him to reckless crusades. Survivors of Mito Pica, the city ravaged by the drake Toma, still call for the blood of the reptiles and their voices are strong. Melicard himself is obsessed with the Dragon Kings. Once discovered, I came to realize that the only way to bring some sense to this chaos was to become an integral part of my liege's court, a voice of reason."
"And so you summoned a demon?" Darkhorse responded with false innocence. "Truly you are a master of logic! What genius! Never would I have thought of so cunning a plan!"
The sorcerer rose, his brief reverie broken by the stinging words. Almost, he glared at his captive. Almost.
"Mal Quorin would have found another to translate the damnable book! One more flexible to his will! Now, at least, I can control the situation, keep it from growing unchecked!"
"Is this what Ishmir would've done?"
The question was Drayfitt's undoing. Mention of his brother's name gave birth to a rapidly growing rage, a rage coupled with carelessness. He whirled on Darkhorse, intending to punish him for bringing to the surface the thoughts that had been wracking the old man's mind since agreeing to this insane plane. Would Ishmir have gone through this; Drayfitt knew the answer and did not like it. He glared at the shadow steed, his gaze making contact with the cold, blue eyes.
Darkhorse froze the sorcerer where he was, seizing control of his unprotected mind. The phantom stallion laughed quietly at the success of his plan, but it was a hollow laugh. Drayfitt was a good, if naive, mortal. Using his brother's name so pained Darkhorse, who had known most of the long-dead Dragon Masters, including Ishmir the Bird Master.
"Forgive me for this, both of you," he muttered, "but I had no choice."
All emotion fell from the spellcaster's face. His arms hung limply. He looked more than ever like a dead man; Darkhorse, who did not want to hurt him, moved cautiously.
"Your mind is mine, mortal! Your soul is mine! I could hurry you along the Path Which Men May Travel Only Once, but I will not! Not if you obey!"
Drayfitt remained motionless, but Darkhorse knew, as only he could know, that, deep within, the sorcerer's subconscious understood.
"You will remove the barrier, and open a gate in this Void-forsaken cage, and let me out! Do so and I will leave you untouched!"
Though his voice boomed, the shadow steed had no fear that the guards outside would give warning. Melicard had ordered Drayfitt to enshroud the chamber in a blanket of silence, meaning that all sounds would pass no further than the walls. A very important guest had arrived and the king, oddly subdued, did not want knowledge of his activities to reach that unknown personage.
The masks of royalty are many, Darkhorse thought snidely. Who could it be who would make "handsome" King Melicard so nervous?
Drayfitt worked smoothly, methodically, going through the motions of the spell. Though he no longer had the book, the memory of his first attempt still remained and Darkhorse had drawn that out. Had there been time, he would have had the mortal repeat the steps out loud so that he could study the makings of the spell. Vraad sorcery it was and the black steed was disturbed he had not seen it sooner. Again, had there been time, Darkhorse would have sought out the book--and the one who had discovered it. Vraad sorcery was dangerous, although on the surface it seemed amazingly simple at times.
With a stiff gesture, Darkhorse reversed the outcome of the spell. Instead of creating yet another cage around the first, he tore the present one apart.
The elderly sorcerer lowered his hands and resumed his deathlike stance. Darkhorse took a hesitant step toward the edge of his prison. One limb, stretched to needle-thin, touched the barrier--and passed beyond it. Jubilant, Darkhorse leaped free, not trusting his luck to hold long.
"Freedom! Ahhh, sweet-tasting freedom! Excellent work, my mortal puppet! Most excellent work!" He gazed down almost fondly at the spellcaster. "For that, you deserve a reward of great value, something I think you've lacked these past days! Sleep! Deep, restful sleep! A long, restful nap will do you wonders! When you wake, I want you to do one more thing for me; seek out the source of your Vraad sorcery, this book, and destroy it! Rest now!"
Drayfitt slumped to the floor.
With one last, contemptuous scan of the chamber that had been his prison, Darkhorse reared, opened a path to the beyond, and vanished through it.
AS NIGHT PREPARED to give way to day, the object of Darkhorse's desperate quest materialized in the middle of a chamber that was quite a contrast to the one recently forced upon the shadow steed. Though a bit more austere than the personal quarters of King Melicard, they were elegant and, indeed, also fit for a king.
Shade reached out a hand and ran a finger along the edge of a massive, golden couch. A thick layer of dust flew off. The warlock may have smiled. No one had made use of this room in quite some time, years perhaps.
The rumors were true, then. These chambers had once belonged to the Lord Gryphon, inhuman but just ruler of Penacles; the legendary City of Knowledge. Once, the Gryphon had been a comrade, sometimes a friend, but only at those times when Shade could be trusted. The Gryphon had understood him better than most, save Darkhorse. As Shade wiped the dust from his fingertip, he found the almost missed his sometime adversary. The Gryphon was rumored to be somewhere across the Eastern Seas, fighting some war that seemed unwilling to completely finish itself. Despite numerous pleas by various city functionaries, the man he had left in charge, a minor spellcaster of masterful strategy, General Toos, refused to take on the mantle of king. Instead, the general had chosen to become regent, with powers equal to those of the monarch with the unique option of retiring in favor of the Gryphon if and when he returned.
So much the better, Shade decided. He turned in a slow circle, observing each and every object, whether it stood on the floor, was pinned to the wall, or hung from the ceiling. Most things were as he remembered them, even down to the two lifelike metal statues standing on each side of the door. They were iron golems, animated creatures of cold metal created by the former lord of Penacles to guard his personal chambers. Surprisingly swift, the creatures should have been on top of the warlock the moment he materialized. Unlike most intruders, however, Shade had the key to their control.
There were words, implanted deep in their very beings, that, when acknowledged by the golems, made them no more than fanciful statues. Words that Shade had silently flung at them before completely materializing. There were advantages to having once been privy to the secrets of the Gryphon. The warlock chuckled quietly, then turned to one of the far walls, where the object of his search, a great, intricately woven tapestry of the entire city of Penacles, hung.
That the tapestry hung here, unwanted by the regent, said many things. The artifact was ancient, even older than Shade. He touched it delicately. General Toos had never hidden his dislike for talismans of power, though he tolerated them. The tapestry itself was only a link to another greater wonder, though. Leaning as close as he dared, the warlock slowly studied the pattern. Each and every street, every building, was represented. Despite having been originally weaved during the initial construction of Penacles, the tapestry revealed structures that were no more than a year or two old.
"Even after all this time, you still work flawlessly," Shade whispered. The creator had been a perfectionist and even Shade acknowledged the superiority of this artifact.
For several minutes he scanned the tapestry, seeking a masking that he could not even be certain he would recognize. Like the city, the mark he sought changed over the years. Sometimes, it was a stylized picture of a book. Other times, it had been a single letter. There had been many symbols over the centuries, a number of them highly obscure.
I need your fantastic eyes, Lord Gryphon! You were always able to spot the mark with little more than a glance!
Then, his eyes fell on a tiny, twisted banner, one familiar to him as it would be to no other creature living today. Shade smiled his hidden smile and the blur of face seemed to swirl with emotion. He memorized the location and briefly looked up at the tapestry in open admiration. "One would think you were living, old thing, and, if so, you have a wicked sense of humor! My--my father--might even have been amused!"
Father. The warlock shivered. Not all the memories that returned were particularly pleasant ones. He quickly buried himself in his task.
Locating the mark again, Shade rubbed the banner with one finger, and as he did, the room around him began to fade. Shade may have smiled. He continued to rub the mark as the Gryphon's chambers gave way to another room of sorts, a corridor. The tapestry, still whole, remained until the living quarters had completely dissipated. Then, it, too, faded away. The warlock was left standing in a corridor whose walls were lined with endless shelves of massive, bound tomes, all identical, even in color. The tapestry still worked.
He stood in the legendary libraries of Penacles.
The libraries had been standing long before the city. His memories returning, Shade recalled some of the truth about the odd structure, a building beneath the earth, beneath Penacles, that was larger on the inside than the outside and never to be found in the same location. Its true origins were unknown even to him, but he suspected that, as with the spell that Melicard's sorcerer had used to make Darkhorse's cage, this was Vraad work.
Other than the countless volumes stored here, there was not much to see. The floor was polished marble. The corridor he stood in and those he could see were all illuminated by the same unseen source. The shelves themselves might have been brand new, though Shade knew otherwise. Time seemed not to matter in the libraries.
"You have returned after all this time."
The matter-of-fact statement proved to be issued by a small, egg-headed figure clad in simple cloth garments. His arms almost reached the ground, due in great part to his uncommonly short legs. There was not so much as a strand of hair on his head.
One of the gnomes--or perhaps the only gnome--who acted as librarians here. As far as Shade could recall, the libraries had always had gnomes and all of them had been identical in appearance.
"Ten years is not so long to the two of us," the spellcaster mocked, recalling his final visit here with the Lord Gryphon.
The gnome seemed oblivious to the tone of mockery, replying simply, "Ten years, no. A thousand years, yes. Even to the two of us."
Though his face was unreadable, Shade's body was not. He stiffened and tried to speak, but was uneasy about his choice of words. The gnome chose to fill the silence.
"What you seek is not here. It is, perhaps, the one piece of knowledge the libraries refuse to contain."
Speaking of the libraries in terms of a thinking creature irritated