Back | Next

Chapter One

Swan was naked except for white silken ribbons binding back her hair at the nape of her neck. She swirled the blue-gray surface of the Memory Pool with the tips of her toes and her skin goosefleshed and her nipples involuntarily hardened with the water’s chill.

Swan glanced over her shoulder, along the high meadows expanse. Her horse was hobbled beneath the drooping boughs of a Ka’B’Oo, its main trunk thrusting nearly a hundred spans toward the snow-threatening clouds. The powerfully built white mare grazed peacefully, showing no sign of alarm.

Swan would be dangerously vulnerable to attack: alone, all of her clothes, her charm bag, her sword and dagger set aside. There was, however, no choice if she was to know what she should do. Her skills as an Enchantress notwithstanding, she had never divined the future: the very thought of such ability was terrifying. Rather, to plan for tomorrow, it was necessary to interpret the yesterdays which had gone before. That was why she came to the Memory Pool.

Swan stepped forward, one foot instantly immersed to the ankle, reliving a fleeting recollection of someone whom she had never been able to call “father.” He had vanished from her life when she had not yet lived long enough to possess the power of speech. But the enigmatic words that he would whisper to her as he rocked her in his arms echoed now from the roots of her soul.

“L’Ull B’Yan G’Ite!” Swan cried.

As if she were an infant again, Swan felt the warmth of her father’s breath against her cheek, the roughness of his face as he touched his lips against that cheek. But that was all the recollection that she had of him, and the waters of a Memory Pool promised nothing more, could not create memories where none existed.

Swan took another step. The pool began to engulf her, its waters reaching toward her in great towers of cold froth, wildly crashing over her shoulders, her breasts, a fierce tempest assaulting her body, as waves would surge over rocky crags along some lonely shore. And the full power of the Memory Pool began flowing through her, mingling with her body’s life force energy. With each step that she took deeper and deeper into the Memory Pool’s churning waters the past gripped her more tightly, consumed her in long ago realities...

Eran, Sorceress Queen of Creath, Mistress General of the Horde of Koth, galloped hard across the plain, wind riding hair black and flowing, arrow straight. Eran’s eyes, gemstone green, deep beyond deep, glistened like dragon’s blood, were brighter than the sun gleaming snow over which she rode.

“Mother,” Swan whispered, alone on the wind-lashed parapet overlooking the plain. It was her second-sight which allowed her to see in such detail at such a distance.

A quirt was looped to her mother’s wrist, but Eran’s black gauntleted hands alone, knotted in black leather reins, subjugated the dapple grey stallion. The grey would know the whips sting and not wish to taste it again after learning it so well when first broken to the saddle.

The stallion was named Mul’Din. Eran, the Queen Enchantress, never rode mares, always stallions, never gelded until she was through with them. Each one of them was once a man. Mul’Din was a young lieutenant of the Horde, a lover who refused to submit to Eran’s erotic demands, who wished to dominate rather than be dominated. Eran spell-changed him, as she had with all the others, dominated him with the lesson of the whip, rode him wherever she went. Inside him beat a man’s heart, functioned a man’s brain; and, although Eran had taken from him the power of speech, he could still understand as a man.

Swan cocooned herself more deeply within her fur-ruffed greatcape, raised her skirts and started down the narrow steps. Flakes of snow blew in clouds like smoke. By the time Swan reached the base of the stone steps, the gap between horsewoman and castle wall had noticeably diminished, less than a hundred warblades.

Swan no longer needed second-sight, merely watched as any ordinary mortal might. Eran wore a bodice, tightly cinched, greener almost than her eyes. A tooled black baldric was suspended from her right shoulder, buckled between her breasts over the knot of her crocheted shawl.

The deeply engraved hilt and pommel of her sword swashed against her left hip. The blade’s scabbard vanished beneath, then reappeared from within the crimson folds of heavy winter skirts hitched high above black boots, skirts and linen petticoats raised so that Eran could ride astride like a man as she always did.

The great horse Mul’Din skidded on its haunches in the snow, reined back. Righting itself, it reared, shook its head. Lips drawn back, a ray of sunlight striking the steel bit in its mouth, the stallion’s teeth gleamed white beneath blood red lips. Mul’Din flicked its tail and hurtled itself into the final charge, billows of steam issuing from wide flared nostrils.

With an all but imperceptible shrug of her left shoulder, a tug of her left hand, Eran urged Mul’Din across the lowered drawbridge and up the flagstones along the castle’s ramped outer defense rampart.

Swan left the landing and walked onto the ramp, waiting. The thrumming of the stallion Mul’Din’s hooves had slowed. Eran was cooling the animal as she closed the distance.

Strapped to Eran’s boots were glinting silver spurs, their tips blunted so that they would neither snag the hem of her gown nor rip the hand-sewn lace beneath it. Her cheeks looked cold flushed, flawless. She sprang from the saddle, skirts falling into place, swaying round her ankles.

“You are exquisite as always, mother.”

Her mother’s eyes swept over her. “A woman your age should wear brighter colors, Swan. Your cloak, for example. Such a dark green! Now, if only the fur trimming the hood weren’t black—”

Swan smiled, touched a fingertip to her lips—they were shaded a deep red—and then whisked the finger through the fur-ruff framing her face.

“That color is much better for the fur, Swan. That was a very nice bit of magic.”

“I’ve always trusted your eye for clothes, mother.”

“And I’ve always trusted your good taste, in everything but companions. My spies have made it perfectly clear to me, Swan, that you totally ignore my warnings against consorting with the Company of Mir. You conspire against me with my enemies, themselves madmen who follow the teachings of the maddest madman! You have great abilities, my young Enchantress, but they are conjurer’s tricks compared to the powers which I command. You well know this, Swan, yet you persist in goading me, giving me no choice but to kill you.” Eran’s voice, in the mid-range as women’s voices went, rose and fell, musically, hypnotically. Swan had witnessed her mother kill by voice.

“And, mother, did you ride here for that? To kill me?”

“I rode fifty lancethrows here to warn you one last time. Killing you would have been vastly quicker and ridiculously easier.”

Mul’Din whinnied.

“Silence, Mul’Din!” The whip swung up from the loop on Eran’s wrist, settled into her hand and lashed across her one-time lover’s muzzle. She returned her gaze, her attention to Swan, the horse silent, great head bowed. “I am your mother, Swan, and for that reason only you still live. I am first the Sorceress Queen of Creath, Mistress General of the Horde of Koth. Heed well where my priorities lie, child! Continue in your foolish ways and perish in agony beyond any that you can now comprehend, daughter or no.”

Swan steadied her breathing before she spoke. “If my magic will not grow stronger as did yours—Your powers were once no greater than mine. You yourself told me that once. But if my magic will not grow stronger, how am I a threat to you?”


“Mother, what possible mischief might I or even all the Company of Mir cause which your powers could not overwhelm in the blink of an eye? And you command the Horde of Koth, the creatures in your armies outnumbering the Company of Mir better than a hundred to one! How am I or are they a threat?”

“You are an annoyance, girl! They are a blasphemy with their talk of freedom. Soon, they will all be dead. It is your magic alone which hides them from the Horde, shields the Company of Mir’s stronghold. I have come to order you to break your spell.”

Swan laughed. “You can’t break my spell because you don’t know how I wove it. You might spend years and never find the right combination, or never know if you had. The only way for sure would be—”

There was the ringing of steel whisked from leather. The blade of Eran’s sword arced across the grey winter sky, sliced a ray of sunlight escaping through an instant’s rip in the scudding clouds of the snow shower. Razor sharp steel rested against Swan’s neck, sliced through the fabric of her greatcape’s hood, but drew no blood from Swan’s flesh. “Kill you? Break the spell in a day and live. This blade would have continued on its path and your path would have ended here and now forever if I had not wished to give you this one last chance.” As quickly as it had appeared, the sword returned to its sheath. Swan shrugged off the damaged greatcape, her shoulders bare beneath it, the flakes of snow which touched her skin no longer cold seeming, but life affirming.

Eran settled her left foot into the stirrup of her black tooled saddle and swung astride Mul’Din. “Send word to me that the spell is broken or I will send the Horde to take your life. Good-bye, my daughter.”

Eran’s spurs jabbed against her hapless former lover’s flanks and she jerked Mul’Din’s reins, wheeling the animal around. “Ride, beast!” Mul’Din leapt into a full gallop, a spray of snow in the wake of its steel-shod hooves.

Swan gathered her skirts and stooped to pick up her greatcape. With a touch of her finger, the rent in the fabric rewove itself as it was before her mother’s sword had sliced it. Again, Swan touched a finger to her lips, then whisked it over the fur which trimmed the hood, the fur once again black. Swan stood up, stared after her mother.

The snow was growing more intense, the flakes larger, heavier. Swan returned the greatcape to her shoulders, nestled the hood about her head. She had survived, both her mother and the Memory Pool. Only a K’Ur Mir could dare fully to immerse herself in a Memory Pool—seven such pools were known to exist in Creath—and ever hope to retain sufficient willpower to emerge again. Her mother had done it when she began womanhood, as was always the custom for the daughter of the ruling Queen Enchantress ever since the dawn of Creath. Her mother had broken the custom, telling Swan, “Your father was not of proper birth, was not K’Ur Mir. You are not fully of the Enchantress blood. You would die.”

Children would dip their hands into a Memory Pool, and a careless mother would lose her child forever if she let the child reach deeper. Some persons, whom age or sadness had weakened in spirit beyond life’s redemption, willingly surrendered their lives, hoping for a last glimpse of long ago happiness. The wretches would relive life’s agonies equally among life’s joys. Some very few philosophers still existed in Creath, not yet hunted down, eradicated by her mother’s evil. And they argued (when idle hours in some safe haven allowed) that death in the waters of a Memory Pool was not death at all, that time and the “reality” of memory became ever more compacted, hence the willing suicide or hapless accident victim was dead by objective standards in mere minutes, but those minutes were an infinity to the dying.

Swan had stood to her shoulders in the Memory Pool and let the waters do their magic, her memories swirling within her and the full knowledge of her memories filling her. She was K’Ur Mir or she would not have lived. Her mother lied. But if her father were of the blood, where had he gone? Drawing her greatcape about her, Swan ran along the ramp to find her own horse. Her mother refused to allow her any attendants at the castle which was the official residence of the Virgin Enchantress, Daughter Royal, Princess of Creath. So Swan used magic to make the castle clean, to bring food and wine, to create her clothes, to tend the watch on the parapets, to raise and lower the drawbridge, to keep her horse. Her magic already at work, the white mare—the only other living thing in the castle—would be saddled and waiting.

Swan reached the otherwise empty stables, nuzzled her horse’s head for a moment, then mounted. She could ride astride as well as her mother or as well as any man. Today would not be a day to ride any other way but astride. Swan tucked up her skirts in her left hand as she clasped the pommel of the saddle with her right, then slipped into the saddle. “Ride!”

The white mare cantered from the stables, Swan ordering the doors closed behind them. The pace quickened as they crossed the drawbridge, Swan ordering it raised after them.

Erg’Ran, chief scribe within the Company of Mir, had sent a message to her to meet with him, the arrow to which it was attached shot and re-shot twenty lancethrows distance or more before impaling itself in the door of the main hall. He had information for her which would change everything, the message had said. Swan had long contemplated risking the Memory Pool, and dismissed the idea as dangerous, foolhardy. Although she had no idea what information Erg’Ran now possessed, the tone of his written words was what forced her to make the decision. And she was glad for it.

The miller’s cottage that was the meeting place was half-burned, more than half-roofless, and remote in the extreme, accessible only by means of an eroded forest path well-overgrown. It was once a road, clear from being well-traveled when people still lived in this portion of the Land. But those who were not killed had fled, when the Horde of Koth swept through. Those who had neither died nor fled were impressed to slavery and taken off. Only the dark, evil, nameless things which had once hidden deep in the forests now dwelt here, free to roam about as they wished.

They would not usually see her or the horse that she rode. Swan’s magic could cloud their senses. But she dared not use it this day. Magic was additive, she had learned long ago. One could always close a door, light a fire, make a broomstick or lance shaft dance. But serious magic drained away and had to be replenished. And Swan had no idea how much of her magic she had used today to survive the Memory Pool. Rather than cloaking her animal and herself in invisibility, she held tightly to the mare’s reins with one hand and to the hilt of her saddle-mounted sword with the other. Despite her caution, she was still maintaining two very difficult spells. One brought confusion upon the Horde of Koth when they neared the hiding place behind the Falls of Mir where the Company of Mir took refuge. The other spell, admittedly less taxing, obscured both her and her horse from view by birds. Her mother was known to use the simple creatures as an extension of her second-sight.

The ride took longer than usual, because she rode more slowly, with greater caution than ever before. But at last she dismounted before the cottage.

Erg’Ran limped out to meet her, holding the reins of the white mare while Swan dismounted, as if she were somehow less than physically capable of handling her own horse. She did not resent the gesture, however. Erg’Ran was merely an old man with a wooden peg in place of a chopped off foot, robbed of everything except his dignity, subconsciously recalling that he had been raised well in better times, doing a gentlemanly service to a lady. It was something that came naturally to him despite the life he was forced to live.

As Swan’s feet touched the ground, Erg’Ran stepped back and bowed stiffly. Swan touched a gloved hand to his shoulder. Unbidden, she entered the cottage, leaned against the small table at its center and breathed. “I had to conserve my magic. Riding openly through the forest is a very scary thing. And you do it all the time!”

“Most of us have no significant magic, are merely mortal, Enchantress.”

“I wonder if I could ever get used to that.”

Erg’Ran laughed softly. “That’s the least of our problems, Enchantress.”

“My mother has given me a single day to break the spell which protects the Company of Mir or she’ll send the Horde of Koth to kill me.”

“Your father lives, Enchantress,” Erg’Ran told her, then lowered his still clear brown eyes to light his pipe.

Swan was content with her womanhood, except for one thing. Men’s clothes—she had worn them a few times out of necessity—had pockets. Anyone could wear a pouch or haversack, but pockets patched to the outside of a jerkin or slit within the side seam of a robe were wondrous. Only men had these. And Swan wanted desperately to do something with her hands, to hide them away. But she could not. She could clasp them demurely together at her abdomen, one cupped in the other as though she were a supplicant (but they would still shake), or let her hands lie limp at her sides, supported by skirt and petticoats, the trembling still obvious. Rather than either of these, and failing having pockets, she hugged her arms close to her body, hands hidden by her elbows.

Resolution of the hand problem accomplished, the next problem was speech. What should she say to this one she trusted so, who had told her—Nausea swept over her, but she held it back. Her father, alive!

As was usual for her more and more as she gained in wisdom and maturity, Swan said nothing, only listened. “I know that Eran, curse the Queen Sorceress—forgive my unintended rudeness, Enchantress. But I know that the Queen Sorceress told you that your father was dead. He is not and I know this for the truth that it is.” Erg’Ran exhaled a cloud of grey pipe smoke, sweet smelling. “He is and has been a prisoner these many years where you are forbidden to go—”

“Barad’Il’Koth,” Swan murmured.

Erg’Ran placed his clenched right fist to his forehead, invoking the courage of Mir to fill his heart, then spoke the name himself. “Barad’Il’Koth. He is there, your father.”

Swan’s momentary feeling of nausea was gone, in its stead a feeling she not often experienced and despised in her sex: faintness. Perhaps Erg’Ran noticed the blood draining from her cheeks, because he took her elbows in his hands and all but lifted her, taking her to the far side of the miller s cottage, easing her into a rough-hewn wooden chair. Swan covered her face with her hands, remembered at last to breathe.

“The secret of my mother’s evil is at Barad’Il’Koth. And so is the secret of my father.”

“And the Horde of Koth guards Barad’Il’Koth, thousands of men and other creatures and there are fewer than ten score of the Company of Mir. And even, somehow, if we were to defeat the Horde, there is the magic of the Queen Sorceress.”

Swan nodded, almost angry with Erg’Ran for stating the obvious. “Her magic is stronger than mine. Yes, I know, I know. G’Urg!”

Horrified, obviously embarrassed by her reference to fecal material, Erg’Ran said, “It is a testament to the times in which we live, I suppose, that the Virgin Enchantress, Daughter Royal, Princess of Creath should even know such a word, let alone utter it. Forgive my boldness, Enchantress, but—”

“You feel as if you are a father toward me—I know that and find that endearing about you, old friend.” Swan stood, ungloved her hand and outstretched it to him. As if he were the most elegantly costumed courtier from the days before her mother’s reign, Erg’Ran stepped back, bowed, a shock of his grey hair falling across his forehead. His lips lightly touched her hand. “I have less than a day,” she told Erg’Ran, “to master what spells I can which might prove useful against my mother and her armies, then forsake my castle and join the Company of Mir behind the Falls. Good will prevail over evil. Somehow it will.”

“Take Gar’Ath with you, then, Enchantress, to guard you lest the Queen Enchantress should count the time differently than you and catch you unawares. He is the greatest warrior in the Company of Mir. I can have him here in less than half a day, sword at his side.”

Swan shook her head. “No, my friend. That would be half the time I have to prepare. I will know if my mother sends the Horde against me sooner than she had promised. Gar’Ath should see to the defenses of the encampment, and you should help him to find routes to safety lest—”

“Lest the Horde takes your life and your spell can no longer shield us. Yes, I know. Perhaps you should break the spell and the Company can—”

“Can what? If I surrender to my mother, you might all die, and there would be no one remaining to stand against her evil.” Swan held Erg’Ran’s hand. “It is foretold in the Prophecies of Mir that in the future of Creath there would come a time when a Virgin Enchantress would attempt to seek the origin of her seed in order to break the power of evil. You are the one who taught me this prophecy, old friend, taught me that perhaps my mother was that evil, and that I was the Virgin Enchantress spoken of by Mir himself. You started me along this path. Would you have me deny what I’ve come to believe in?”

“You discovered the prophecy in the hidden writings your mother had thought she had destroyed. I only translated it from the Old Tongue with the help of your magic,” he reminded her. “You cannot win the day by yourself, or even with the Company of Mir fighting beside you. The prophecy in no way guarantees that you will be able to defeat your mother’s evil, only that you will attempt to. There is more to the prophecy, too, but it is a riddle.”

Swan sat down again, hands resting limply in her lap, her mind suddenly devoid of focus, certitude gone and resolve leaving her. “What riddle, Erg’Ran?”

He closed his eyes, cocked back his head, inhaled deeply and spoke haltingly, translating from the Old Tongue. “In a place that is not but is, the Virgin Enchantress will seek a champion who is not but will be. If death does not claim one or the other, the power of one will be the power of the other. Goodness is the fruit of evil and also its seed.”

“What does that mean?” Swan gasped.

Erg’Ran looked embarrassed, his face seaming with an odd smile. “I don’t know! All of Mir’s prophecies end cryptically, almost contradictorily. It must mean something, or Mir wouldn’t have said it.”

“How do we know Mir said it? Maybe somebody just wrote it down and said that Mir said it.”

“Well, I suppose that’s possible, Enchantress, but hardly likely.”

“Then where do I go to find this champion person?”

“Well, that’s right in the prophecy. You go to a place that is not but is.”

“What if there isn’t a place like that? Or, well, what if there are a thousand places like that? How do I find it, Erg’Ran?” He was searching for his tinderbox to relight his pipe. Perhaps pockets had their disadvantages, because he seemed unable to locate it. “Let me,” she offered, recognizing the edge of exasperation in her voice. With a look and a flick of a finger, a tiny tongue of flame licked upward from the bowl of his pipe.

“Thank you, Enchantress.”

“Where do I look?” Swan persisted.

“From my study of the Prophecies of Mir, from what I have seen happening in your life, Enchantress, I can only say that there is no answer which you can seek, only an answer that you will find.”

Swan stood up, on her toes, back arched, shoulders raised. “That word? The one you don’t like me to use? G’Urg! Hear it? G’Urg!!” She stomped from the miller’s cottage, calling out over her shoulder, “Be careful, Erg’Ran! And I’ll see you with the Company of Mir a little over a day from now.” Out the door, before she lost her temper with this wonderfully sweet old man and turned him into a frog or something and then felt guilty about it for the rest of her life. And if she didn’t hurry, that might not be too long. Swan hitched up her skirts, mounted less than gracefully and wheeled the mare toward the forest path...

The ride through the forest was frightening but also restored Swan’s resolve. If her mother triumphed all of Creath would be like that forest, no one would be safe and everyone who somehow managed to survive would exist in constant terror.

The trouble with looking up anything—she was in her tower, her sanctum of sanctums, where all of her precious spell books and her most special charms were hidden away for her use alone—was that as one searched, other things were noticed, catching one’s interest. Swan was searching for an herbal compound that would allow her to cast just one spell, then administer the resultant elixir to the Company of Mir in order to keep each member safe. She hoped to achieve the same effect with this elixir as the spell that she constantly kept reweaving by conscious and continuous force of will. But she found something else that attracted her attention. “I never heard of that,” she exclaimed aloud to herself. It was an incantation which could be used to turn the force of a volcanic eruption back into itself. “About as useful as a sword made out of bread dough,” Swan laughed. The last volcanic eruption on Creath near any populated area was in the time of Mir. And she was beginning to think, that was an awfully long time ago.

Swan returned to her search for the herbal compound.

She came across a spell which could change good wine into foul-tasting vinegar. The same effect could be achieved by leaving the wine too long in the bottle, no magic involved. The more she learned of magic, the more she realized that much of it was simply accelerating normal processes in an abnormal way. “Oh, well.”

Water clocks were the fashion for logging the passage of time, had been since before she was born. She never liked them. When she was just a child, she found a book which explained how to assemble gears and springs and make a time-telling device that was much more accurate (and never needed water). She glanced at it now. If her mother kept her word, time enough remained to gather together some special books and scrolls and favorite articles of clothing and use a compression spell to reduce them to a size that would fit in a man’s pocket, then get her horse and escape before the Horde came for her. Compression spells were long and involved to conjure, however.

Swan felt a subtle tingle along the back of her neck and in her fingertips. The guarding spell which she had set on the castle walls and gates (as she cast afresh once each day) was abruptly broken. Had her mother done it, Swan would never have felt it. Bridging spells would have been cast and the lifting of the guarding spell would have been unnoticed. Her mother, Eran, could do that sort of thing with ease. Swan had tried it, too, knew that such complicated spell casting was not beyond her capabilities.

But, whoever had lifted the spell had powers beyond those of an ordinary military spell breaker. Even those assigned to her mother’s elite guards, the Sword of Koth, were not that good. Probably a group of the Handmaidens of Koth had done it. Taken from their mothers at birth, the Handmaidens were taught the old Witchcraft. Individually, they had some basic magical skills. But in a group of six, one for each of the cardinal directions—above, below, right, left, before and behind—their powers could be significant enough to be dangerous. Confirming her suspicions, Swan felt her heart beginning to race.

The Horde had come for her, and they were using magic to slow her response to their attack.

There was no time for a compression spell. Her precious things would have to be left behind, perhaps to be retrieved later. Swan slowed her breathing, reduced her heart rate to normal. Her hands moving in all directions, she ordered the books and scrolls and vials and retorts to their hiding places, ordering the notes she had taken to fly into her leather spell bag.

There was the noise of heavy footsteps coming up the winding stairs to the tower. Not much time.

Swan extended her left hand, calling, “Sword and sheath and belt, come to me!” They flew immediately from the small couch on which she’d placed them when entering the tower, coming to her hand. She cinched the double wrap belt around her waist. “Dagger!” She had used the tip of her dagger to open the stubborn cork which had sealed one of her vials. There was always the temptation to use magic for everything. That was wasteful, and led to laziness. The dagger slid across the long rough-hewn table where she’d set it, coming to her open right hand. It was the only weapon she always carried. She raised her skirts to sheath it on her left calf.

The footsteps were loud enough now that her second-sight only confirmed what she already knew. Six Handmaidens on the heels of a dozen black-clad warriors from the Sword of Koth. The warriors wielding crossbows, axes and fireswords.

The window would be her only escape. If she used her Enchantress powers to fight these persons whom her mother had sent to kill her, she would be so drained that she might not have enough magic to escape if ordinary means should fail.

Summoning her cape and her spell bag as she ran, Swan reached the window, twisting the latch. Her plan was simple enough. She could summon a strong night wind in a matter of moments, then cast herself from the window and the powerful air currents would set her safely in the courtyard. There’d be time to reach the stable and escape.

Throwing open the sash, the first words of the wind summoning spell were on her tongue. Swan screamed instead, throwing her shoulder against the open window, slamming it shut, but not in time. Swan staggered back.

The warriors from the Sword of Koth, the six Handmaidens, the breaking of the guarding spell. They were all a diversion. Her mother was about to kill her, personally. Only her mother could have summoned what lay beyond the window and was inexorably creeping across the tower floor, along the tower walls.

Her mother had somehow, using magic Swan could not even begin to comprehend, summoned the Mist of Oblivion, the blackest of all magic, a fog but denser than the deepest, darkest night, damp and cold, consuming all that it touched, rendering everything into nothingness. In moments, the castle and all within it would be devoured by the Mist, would utterly cease to exist, not just as flesh and bone, stone and steel, but even as dust. If her mother somehow lost control of the Mist of Oblivion, all of Creath and all of the universe of sun and stars of night would be lost, every life within it gone forever.

The stout wooden door at the far end of the tower shattered inward. Three of the Sword of Koth, faces swathed in black leather battle masks, ran into the room. The six Handmaidens, black robed beneath their cloaks, followed after them. The Handmaidens immediately formed a circle, joining hands. And they began their chant of power.

“Fools!” Swan screamed at them. “My mother is murdering all of you along with me!” The other nine warriors were coming through the doorway now. A crossbow bolt was fired, streaking toward Swan’s head. She flicked her hand, diverting the missile from its target.

The window, the wall where the window had been, the floor near the wall, all were gone, enveloped in the creeping blackness of the Mist. In a matter of eyeblinks, the warriors would be closed off with her where she stood and the Mist of Oblivion would devour them all.

Swans heart beat savagely, her chest visibly pulsating, her breathing labored. It was the magic of the Handmaidens at work against her body.

Swan started to raise her hand, to counter the magic the six Handmaidens worked, but this was what her mother wanted her to do, waste her magic, waste the precious eyeblinks it would take. So there must be an option, something that she could do in order to survive.

And though her mother was now trying to take her life, if Swan survived she would have her mother to thank. Her mother had spoken once of a casting she had made, taken from an old scroll. It drained Eran of almost all her magic for a period of several hours.

Swan let her mind drift back to the Memory Pool, to recall the incantation if she could.

Another crossbow bolt. To deflect it would not drain her. Swan waved her hand. The Mist of Oblivion rolled toward her, was only a few spans from her feet. Two warriors lunged toward Swan with their glowing hot fireswords.

Swan stretched out her arms, her hands grasping for the magic in the air around her, feeling its current surging through her body, strengthening her. She uttered the words of the incantation as she pressed her palms together between her breasts, becoming one with the energy around her.

Light, dazzlingly bright, filled her, exploded from her, magical energy beyond anything she had ever experienced or even imagined, a sound crackling like thunder from chain lightning—

A darkness that glowed like light but was neither light nor dark was all around her, then gone.

Swan looked up. There was a different light, that of the sun, but the sun was different, too. Tall castle towers, unlike anything she had ever seen, soared into the blue sky above. Her gaze trailed downward along the castle walls. They were filled with windows, larger than any she had ever seen. An army of coaches moved along smooth black stone roadways on either side of her, but no horses or other beasts drew them.

There was magic here. Of that, Swan was certain.

Someone spoke to her in a tongue which she did not understand. Swan turned toward the voice. It belonged to a girl, a girl about her own age, black coloring around her eyes, a spiked animal collar around her neck. The girl spoke again to her and smiled. Swan smiled back. The girl was attired only in a leather binding around her breasts and a skirt that was too short to be a skirt and boots which rose to her thighs, their heels too high to be practical for riding.

The girl spoke still again, and when Swan did not respond, the girl nodded, then began using her hands in some sort of gesturing symbology. Swan did not comprehend the gestures, but realized clearly their intent: the strangely dressed girl thought that she was deaf. A very large lantern swayed over the road. It had been emitting a red light, which seemed to serve no practical purpose of illumination on such a bright and sunny day. The light changed to green and the oddly dressed girl touched at Swan’s elbow and propelled Swan with her into the road.

Swan was about to protest, but then she saw something on the other side of the road which gladdened her heart. Yes, there were men in odd metallic suits carrying strange weapons, a female creature that seemed to be half cat and woman, other oddities. But, she saw a girl attired similarly to herself, in long dress and hooded cloak, although the girl carried no sword, no spell bag. With her were two men, one of them a great teacher or philosopher from the look of his cowled robes, the other dressed in the finery of a courtier, like the ones whom she had seen pictured from the days before her mother’s reign, in bright red hose and gleaming black knee boots, a black jerkin over his white shirt, a bonnet with a feather plume on his head. A sword—a little too flashy looking to be very good steel—hung from an elaborate frog at his hip.

Reaching the far side of the road, Swan saw others dressed in similar finery, and others attired even more oddly than the girl who had guided her across the road. What land was this? Swan had learned spells to translate writings so that she could assist Erg’Ran in his translations from the prophecies of Mir. They required little magical energy once mastered. She cast such a spell now to interpret the runic symbols on the cover of a colorful book the courtier with the flashy sword held in his hand. And Swan wondered, what was a DragonCon? A Comics Expo? What was an Atlanta?

She would need a spoken language spell, and very quickly, because the girl who wore the animal collar and overbound her breasts with leather was talking to her again and so was the half-cat, half-woman creature.

Back | Next