“We have to protect him,” King Herod muttered. He didn't like the sound of it, himself. The words were foreign on his tongue, and he tried to grasp his mind around it-around the infinite. He didn't know what he was going to do about the war, didn't want tobother thinking about it or their current situation. He only knew the kingdoms surrounding Hanover wanted to fight him, and he had been forced to comply. He shuddered, thinking what Derrin Whitevest would have done if he'd had the dagger in his hand. He didn't want to think about it. He was a good enough soldier, but he wasn't the best. “We're walking into the dawn,” the soldier intoned. His face was set in stone, and his eyes were drawn in tight little slits. He looked over at the sleeping body of Ellerhynwyn Monteserrio, the man they were supposed to protect. He wasn't too happy about the current events. He didn't like Ellerhynwyn, and wanted him to suffer. Badly. He had scraped himself on their walk from Tempal to Honwrin, and he was chuckling to himself about it still. He didn't think he could do anything about their current situation, except like it and lump it and maybe things will work out again on their own. He hoped so. He felt he didn't have a time line. He never consulted his commanding officer, Rivurus Snower, and was upset about how demanding their time was. They only cared about one thing-which was gaining compensation for their losses. They had lost a lot. Mond Itlet lost his entire house in a fire; and his three brothers and sisters and his parents were missing, presumed dead. That was a lot to lose. That wasn't much to gain, either. He swallowed hard and stared at the rising sun, contemplating their next move. He was sure Elven soldiers were on their trail, seeking them out to kill them. He didn't like it. Didn't like the looks of it. Not anymore.
“We should go home,” he said to Raven Crest. He looked bored. He was a superb soldier, born and bred of Ikeinenian descent, and lived in Hanover most of his life. Ikein was an ancient country that had been transformed into the Thiidd Kingdom, part of the Chefton and Williamson countryside. Most of it belonged to King Herod, even though it was not in the kingdom anymore-it was outside of Hanover. The place was breathtakingly beautiful, but deadly for magic creatures of all kinds. It was an interesting feat, one that was permeated from the source of all creation. It was said Merlin created the world with his staff. It was said he died in the creation of it, or returned to Earth. Nobody knew for certain, and he most likely didn't care. Not really.
“What am I going to do,” he murmured.
Raven wasn't listening. He stared straight ahead, trying to contemplate the rashness of their defeat. The heaviness of what they were trying to accomplish. Peace and stability in Hanover and abroad, if possible, which it most likely wasn't. He swallowed a mouthful of beer and handed it to Ellerhynwyn. Ellerhynwyn smiled and took the drank, grateful for it. “Thanks,” he told him.
“Not again,” Railan Lenkr groaned, and shook his head. “What are you doing, Rail? You trying to get yourself killed again?” He scowled and put his face in his hands and looked up at the rising sun. It was morning. He and his commanding soldiers walked all night, and had finally reached Inen Isle, the territory between the Western Front and the Lanin Borders, before the Elven territory. He hated thinking about the Elves. They were so creepy. They enjoyed killing people for sport, as well as animals and humans. They hated humans with a passion. He’d read once, a long time ago, before the airship was invented, that humans and Elves lived in peace and harmony-yeah, right. That was a good one. Humans and Elves were never going to cooperate; never going to share; and they certainly didn’t care to like each other.
He reached up and felt the knob on his head and made a face and scowled. He should have used magic to take down the tanker-he had magic, and was able to use it. He knew he wasn’t supposed to, but nobody followed the rules. Nobody knew where magic came from, or what they were supposed to do with it, only that it caused a lot of useless problems and trauma and nothing could be done about the wars. Most wars sprang from magic.
The wizard walked down the road and looked back at the cart that was snaking its way behind him, as if being pushed along the ground by itself. Railan Lenkr had been walking all day and he was getting tired-he needed some serious downtime and didn’t want to think about anything else other than relaxing, and food. Food was first and foremost on his mind and he wanted to find a restaurant or a pub or tavern and eat until he was full. He was glad for the money he had earned as a soldier, even if it meant doing things he wouldn’t normally do. He shrugged his shoulder impassively and didn’t know what he was going to do about food in the next few days, or the next few weeks. “Well,” he said impatiently, and shook his head. “Come along, I don’t got all day. You coming or not?”
The cart snaked along behind him. The wizard scowled and turned around and walked forward again, making sure the pack was firmly in its place on his back. His shadow crawled along behind him on the ground and he had the funniest feeling that he was the only person in the entire world. The sun was going down over the hills and a soft wind moaned, ruffling his hair. He didn’t know where he was going now, only that it was dark and he was cold and scared. Goosebumps rose up on his arms and he swallowed hard and tried not to cry. A tear squeezed down the corner of his eye. He tried not to cry. He didn’t want to cry. Even if he was by himself. He hadn’t cried since he was a little kid. He shook his head and walked on.
“I am a wizard,” the stranger admitted.
The Elder frowned. “What kind of wizard?” he asked hastily. The term was frowned upon in the Western Kingdoms, specifically Hanover, Redder, and Journ.
He looked confused. His eyebrows scrunched up. “Well, what do you mean by that?”
“What I mean is,” he said impatiently, “what kind of wizard are you? Are you a White Wizard, or a Dark Wizard?”
The stranger shrugged nonchalantly. “A long time ago, before Murdock was born, I was in a battle. That is how I got the scar underneath my eye.” He pointed to the scar. The Elder frowned and nodded and urged him to continue. “I woke up in the hospital. Nothing else happened before or since-I have seen doctors and healers. No one has been able to heal me. I couldn’t even remember my own name, and changed it to Railan Lenkr.”
Beff Muchelo pursed her lips and nodded. “I can see that,” she said, and nodded. “How long have you had the scar?”
He shrugged and ran a hand through his thick, curly hair. He had dyed it brown. It was blonde before. “I don’t know. I guess, seventeen years.”
“You are still a youngling.”
He made a face. “I prefer to be called an apprentice.”
“You are my apprentice.”
“What are you going to do with your magic?” She was curious. She’d had a dream about it before and consulted the healer, Heriana Kessler, and hadn’t brought back the best results. She was broad-shouldered and powerful and had a list of powerful enemies, including King Herod. There was a story behind the hatred, but no one knew what it was, only that it involved magic and the Bloodstone.
“I would like to become a kything,” he replied.
“What’s that? The term sounds familiar, but I’ve never heard of it before.”
“It’s a term used by people who are gifted in telepathy, and can connect the bridge between the subconsciousness and the consciousness and make memories whole again. In other words, amnesia no more.” He spread his hands and smiled.
She nodded. “I guess I can see where you are coming from, although I do not like it or understand it. I have never been in the hospital.”
“Never? What about when you were born?”
She shrugged. “I was born in Jin-Dyng Castle,” she replied. “In the Eleventh Kingdom.”
“What’s the name of the Eleventh Kingdom?”
“Nothing, it’s just called the Eleventh Kingdom.”
“Oh. Right. I see.” She pursed her lips and didn’t say anything else.
That night, the stranger left, carrying his wagon behind him and making his way slowly down the trail. The dust swirled around his feet and the sun was getting lower and lower in the sky. Shadows loomed over him and goosebumps rose up and down his flesh and he didn’t know what he was looking for, only that he was looking straight ahead, towards home, and he was going by himself. He hated traveling alone. He didn’t have any reason to be anywhere, other than for food and board and nobody helped, not even at the Tower of High Sorcery. The light was going lower and lower in the sky and everything around him was cold and dark, and he felt naked and alone. He’d heard werewolves dwelled in the woods and the woods were caught in rims against the setting sun. The sun was a bursting ball of fire.
* * *
The wizard was afraid of everything, and the Dark Magic made him bad. He was a terrible liar. He lied about everything from what he had for breakfast that morning, to how much money he had in the bank. He was not someone who could defend the good guys from the bad. He was not someone to look up to-in fact, he was a terrible person and he had his terrible ways and the terrible ways he looked about things. His hair was scraggly. His mind was unfocused. He had trouble misusing things. He had trouble speaking his mind. He was caught up in the web of grief that wrapped around his face and made him gasp for breath, made him think he was beyond anything that was what he knew. Death was not like that. Death was sudden, still. Stiller than breath, than the eyes that could see. Stiller than everything in the deep dark despair that was everywhere and in everything. The heart of the matter was this. Things were gone. Everything was broken. Death was continual. Nothing else but death. The pain was unhealing. Nothing could stop the pain. It went on and on and on, in his mind. He sat on a bench at the train depot, thinking. He was going to go. He was going to go to war. He had not been called to war-the war had called to him. He had nowhere else to go. His mother threw him out of the house and he was left with nothing but a bag of things and the clothes on his back. He had a hundred pense and that would last him awhile, but not long enough to last forever. He needed something that would last forever-something to sate the hunger that gnawed deep inside of him and forced him to change, to succeed. Everything in it had transcended. Everything in it was eventual. His mind was made up. He was going to go to war. It would not be the same kind of war. It was a war of magic. War of magic was different from a regular war.
“How often do you use Dark Magic?” the man in the black hat asked, cocking his head to study the Dark Elder. He was really very interested in the subject of Dark Magic. He bragged about it to a man in the white booth. He was slurping on his soup. The storm outside was growing. More clouds formed. He was afraid for the dragons. Humans offered them houses, large houses by the sea, but they refused, saying their wings were much too large to be indoors. They shed a lot, and the scales were large, massive things. Damsel the Impaler helped wherever she could, but she was devoted to the unicorns who saved her in her time of need. The need was no longer there, save for her desire to protect them. Unicorns were very rare. Dragons were much more stable in their breeding and bred whenever it was possible. There were over four hundred in the kingdom alone.
He chuckled. “Every chance I get,” he replied.
“How does it make you feel?”
He shrugged, fiddled with his robe. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “I use it to help me.” He didn’t like talking about magic. It set him apart. He was afraid it would set him apart too much.
“Did you ever kill anybody with it?” he prodded.
He shrugged. “I was expelled once,” he answered. “Expelled from college-they never let me back in. I went to the Tower of High Sorcery. Everyone was very nice to me. I was taught under by a man named Mortard Fulgorth. He had big ears and a jittery laugh. He was nervous.”
“How so?” The stranger’s name was Adward Liersen.
“He was afraid of everything,” he replied, frowning. “One of the Elders say he was struck by lightning-it gave him a start. He never wanted to go outside. Stayed inside, playing with his magic cards.”
He was really interested. “What can his magic cards do?” he queried. He was boiling an egg on the stove. The water was boiling over. He took the pan off the oven, and took out the eggs and peeled them in the sink. He always said peeling eggs was a lot like peeling a potato. It was night. The Dark Elder spent the night. He told the man he would have bad dreams-he caught sight of magic outside his house. The man did not know he was gifted in magic. The magic was interesting, and it whirled around him in sheets. A clap of thunder. Snow fell through the trees and sheltered them. It was cold. The wind was cold and it was sharp at their backs and the winter made everything even colder. They hunched over the wind, their hair flew wildly, looking like a bird’s nest. Everybody was ecstatic about the start of winter, but Savinn Asjinn was more worried than excited. He expected it would be a long one. A long one, and full of coldness and darkness. In the kingdom of Flowers, the winters were dark; the cold got inside of a person and made people wince. No one knew why. Or where the sun went. Everyone expected it was magic. Some people thought the winter was Dark Magic. Most of the ones who did were illiterate.
“I think I’m going to go over there.”
“Over the hills,” he said, “near the trees. I want to build a fire.” The soldier took off running; he tripped and fell over a stone. He bent to pick it up; it glowed. His eyes widened. He could not stop staring at the glowing. It glowed from within. The glow came from magic, probably. Or something close to magic. He dropped the stone in his pocket and forgot about it. He was thinking about food, and of war. War was always on his mind. War was a travesty. War was a burden. War was something he did not want to discuss with the world. He swallowed hard. War was terrible. That much he knew was true.
* * *
A blast shook the entire world. Edward Neilson craned his neck to look up at the sky, a puzzled expression on his face. Where had it come from? It was strange, how everything seemed to turn chaotic when everything had been at peace moments before. He swallowed hard. Were they at war? At school, there had been talk of war. At home, the house had been tense, silent. No room for free thought. It was becoming very problematic. He stroked his beard in silence. He didn’t know what to do about the war. War was a terrible waste of everything. A terrible waste of time. A terrible waste of money. A terrible waste of everything. Another blast. Someone near him screamed-he turned to look, and it was Wilson Cramwell, the man who twice saved his life. He had gone down. He reached for him-his body reached out for him and then the man’s fingers was still.
A gasp shook through him. He reeled outside of himself, trying to think of something, anything. To get himself out of the situation. He shook his head. He didn’t know what to do to help anyone. Magic was the only thing that ever helped.
“What do you mean, I’ve been stripped of my Wizard Title?” Ellerhynwyn Monteserrio stared at King Herod, a shocked expression on his face. “I can’t believe it’s happening to me!” He shook his head to clear away the cobwebs that sprang up in his mind. He still had the matter of his sprained ankle to attend to-a lot of the skin had been cleared off, and even bone was shown underneath. It happened late last night, while he was asleep in his camp. No one knew it was coming, not even the seer they hired-Kerianna. She insisted she was mostly a healer, and had been good to her word. She was a kind woman. A soft-spoken woman and had black hair and brown eyes and a nervous smile, the smile twitched the corner of her mouth and even her eyes smiled. She was a one in a million healer, but even she could not heal the wound in his heart. He swallowed hard. He was going to have to consult a White Elder-one of the hierarchs at the Tower of High Sorcery, the only government on the corrupt world of Merlin.
He licked his lips. They were dry and cacked and bleeding-another problem he was going to have to solve. He wanted to talk to King Herod first. Alone. Without anyone else in the vicinity.
“I explained this to you last night,” he said shortly. “You cannot have the title while we are at war with the Axons. It is dangerous. Nothing quite so dangerous as war itself, but you don’t know what they are capable of. They fear wizards and magic of all kinds. We sent Elves as agents in secret, and they have not come back yet. We may have to send you to retrieve them. Maybe they’re under some kind of magic spell.”
He was puzzled. “I thought you said they hated magic,” he protested. His leg was starting to go numb. He couldn’t leave yet. Not without all of his questions answered, and his heart was heavy in his mind.
* * *
Savinn stumbled into the doorway of the restaurant. Faces looked up at him. Then back down at their dinners. Conversation was hushed and muted; no one wanted to talk about the winter that would not leave, the winter that seemed to last forever.
“What is that thing?” Savinn Asjinn demanded placidly.
“It’s called the Bloodstone,” the stranger replied softly.
“Why is it called that?”
The stranger glared. “Because I said so.”
Savinn recoiled. “Sorry, sorry,” he complained. “Just asking.” He paused. “What are you doing with it?”
He shrugged. “I thought it was a great thing. A lady came, and I didn’t want it anymore. I want to spend more time with the lady. I need someone to take it off my hands, but I can’t give it away.”
“Why can’t you give it away?” Savinn demanded, his eyes hungry. He licked his lips.
“Because it was forbidden. The magic would leave if I did. Or, it would turn into Dark Magic-I forgot which.” He frowned. “Whatever.”
The daemon lived in the mountains and the mountain was made of snow. He was a terrible thing to look at. He had sharp features; a slanted nose; wide forehead; and green scales that glittered like diamonds or the stars at night. The stars rose overhead and they were vast as the ocean. The daemon did not like humans. He loathed them, with a fierce loathsome foreboding that wrapped around himself and forced him to behave in a way that was both malicious and rude. The trees were large; everything around it was large. The daemon lived in a great, big castle all by himself. He did not want to live there. He wanted to be free and live among the humans; because of his birthright, it was denied of him. The wind whistled and blew and everything was around it; and the wind whistled and sang. He loved to eat and went to the river and fished in the river and the river was full of fish. The spider found a pole-he always seemed to find everything almost instantly-and winced and dropped the pole into the river and tried to catch a fish. He could not catch anything. He did not want to go down to the city, for someone would see him and he did not want to be seen. Everything around him was deathly still. So still, he could not breathe-his eyes blinked, flashed madly. Everything was perfect. Perfect and still. The snow fell. The wind whistled. His mouth opened and he sang:
We are of mountain/of burdened snow,
We do not know where we go-
We haven’t found a way behind,
We push past darkness and deep we find,
Nervous now, nervous yet,
Look for the shadow of the silhouette.
The Power of the Six protected Merlin for several thousand millennia-beyond the grain of sand, of wind and rain and lightning, the world spun and the magic spun with it; delved short of nothing of the cold that was in it. The magic delved further into the heart of things; further into the greatness that was the abyss, and made up of everything. Further than the eyes of Torn; the breath of speak; the light that wove through anything. Everything was shattered. Everything was in ruin. The man stood among the ruins, his hands stuffed deep in the pocket of his jeans. He looked ready to bolt from the spot at any minute. He grunted. The wind grunted back.
“Well, old gal,” he told the krying spider. “What are we to do with you?”
“Feed,” the spider said pitifully, and skittered under his feet. He forgot to mention he was terrified of spiders. Beyond terrified. He wanted to kill it. He remained calm. The spider’s eyes reflected sincerity; depthness; intelligence. He had seen spiders before. Spiders were not intelligent.
“Why do we call it krying, anyway?” he continued, his lips trying to part into an almost half smile, the smile of something that had never wavered, had never been worn-the danger was in it all, was in everything. The danger was everywhere. He could smell it. Could smell the way everything was. Everything could be. “Why not have a different spelling? A different sort of spelling in the name, the way the name is shaped. The way it is.”
“You’re babbling,” the spider reminded him.
The man laughed. His laughter rolled across the dust and the spider winced. He was afraid, he feared man, as well as everything else. Everything was to be feared. He did not know why he was afraid; only that it comforted him, and he wanted the man to go away. He said it aloud.
He rose to his feet and nodded. “I’ve come this far, and seen ghosts,” he told him. “I saw many ghosts.”
“They scare me.”
“So, leave, old man.”
“Why’d you call me that?” the spider asked sharply.
His name was Harper. He was a harpist. He was an orphan and had been living in the Red Plains his entire life; it was nowhere near the Great Plains, but the Red Plains were close by. Harper loved to sing. He loved to fiddle. He could do almost anything. He squinted down at the krying spider. “How many of you are there left?” he asked pleasantly enough, and very, very quietly.
The spider sniffed. “I don’t right know,” he apologized. “I only know of cold; of loneliness; of the mind and body. That is all.”
“What of your god?”
“God?” He laughed bitterly. “I don’t know about God. I know about magic.”
“Are you a magician?”
The krying spider rolled over on himself. And straightened.
“What was that for?” Harper couldn’t stop laughing. His insides were tickling. He hoped the krying spider hadn’t drugged him with something from the river. That would be just like him.
“Nothing,” the spider protested. “I was just…rolling over. I do that sometimes.” If the spider could blush, he sure would have.
The night was cold. The man went away and the spider crawled into its little home, and slept; and the stars broke out, full and beautiful, in the sky; and everything was bright. The color of brightness was everywhere. The color of brightness was inside everything. Everything was still. The man woke up in the middle of the night, his dreams sharp as a tack. The dragon rose tall as the mountains-the mountains were tall above it, and the wind was sharp and whistled and the man was sure the Great Plains were cold as cold as it was now. The dragon’s name was Kustka and he snorted cold air. It was winter. He had no trouble finding shelter-caves were all over the place-but he wanted one that was close to a river. He scanned the landscape, the rolling hills that rose and fell against the sky, and the sky was breathtaking and the sun was falling, fell fast. It was going to be night soon. Harper tried to find the krying spider the next morning and the hole he scurried out of was empty-empty and void and lifeless and dark, that was how it looked from where Harper stood. He went into one of the other rooms and saw a golden horn on the table. He picked up the golden horn and blew through it, and the noise was long and low and loud, and had a sweet sound. A sweet sound emitted from it and into the atmosphere. The atmosphere was dark and dank and black. He needed to leave. His job was running-he was a runner. A runner was someone who delivered messages. He very rarely delivered postal mail; that was for some of the other runners, but not for him. Everything was white as snow. The snow tumbled down into everything; the everything and nothing were still there, were not gone. Zeus, the planet, was far from here; he studied planets at college. Most planets were named by people. He did not know their real names. He was not a daemon. He was human. He read about daemons in the highest of mountains; in the cold and the winter and the snow roared around the plains and everything was sparse and naked to the bone. The magic was all around. In everything. The magic was not broken. He could sense it on the wind. Sense it in a way that was both horrific and terrifying and everything about it was as vast as death.
* * *
“Do you want the talisman?” Savinn Asjin asked quietly. He stood with his shoulders hunched against the cold wind. He shivered. He could not see beyond ten feet ahead of him; the darkness was sharp and the wind was bitter. Everything seemed out of place. He didn’t belong here. It made him uncomfortable.
“No,” Sebastian Montserrio answered shortly, and shook his head. “I don’t want it. What are you to steal it?” He glared at him, his eyes lowered.
“I did not steal it!” he protested. “I…won it. From a card game.” He clutched the talisman in his hand; rolled it around and around. It shimmered in the darkness. Something tingled in the back of his mind; Sebastian ignored it, refused to acknowledge it. The cold swept around it in the north and everything was still, stiller than breath. Stiller than anything. The Dark Knight galloped on his midnight black horse through the forest called Evernight Forest; the darkness was deep and concerting and everything around it flickered in an ash of grayness. The bladesman knew he would come. He was a blacksmith; one of the last ones out in the Boonicks, the place beyond the West and the Shadow Kingdom, the place of moon and night, light and sunlight. He had never been there. He wished to seek ale out further than he had intended. His mind was made up. He would fight them. They were coming over the prairie; slowly; he could see them through his window. What he wouldn’t do for magic right about now. Magic was in his blood; he never could do magic, and his grandfather tried to teach him the coin trick.
“You, sir,” the Dark Knight spat. “What are you doing here?” He clenched and unclenched his fists. The knuckles turned white.
“Warming my hands by the fire,” he answered, straightening. “Why?”
Before a second passed, the Dark Knight reached forward, and swiped the man with his steel blade, sent him sprawling into the trees. A second or two passed. The moon peaked behind forbidden clouds. The wind moaned stolidly. Everything was quiet and dark and silent. The Dark Knight straightened his muscular shoulders; his eyes flashed. His tongue flickered in and out. He turned and stormed into the trees, screaming Denya’s name. Denya loped through the tall, green grass. The wind whispered past the broken night; hunger gnawed at her, night and day. She was grateful for the moon. It lit her way. She was grateful for the dark, staring stars and the animals. She could sense their blood from where she stood. Her master, Andalei, had killed a doe, and had fled the trees so she could eat the meat in private. Flies were going to get at it soon. Denya wanted to have the food all to herself. A squirrel dove through the brush; she growled at it, and sliced at it with her paw. Denya was not a magical creature. She was a werewolf. One of the last of her…prey. No, her kind. She was one of the last of her kind, and her Daemon Master, Donica, required her to mate. She was susceptible to all the Dark Things that were coming to pass; the wind and the rain and the light and the fire, and the void mixed in it. Denya knelt next to the meat. The prey had been torn to shreds with a blade; Denya nodded in satisfaction, and bent down to eat it. Fangs protruded, bright and white, from her lips; spit fell from her lips and dropped to the ground and it was wet and the wetness coated her fur.