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The moment Samantha stepped from the Gate of light to the castle floor she knew that what the King had said about an Unseleighe invasion was true, and unexaggerated.

She stood unsteadily in the castle corridor, greeted only by the vertigo of Gating and a row of faerielight sconces along the wall. That no High Court elves greeted her on her arrival did not bode well. The Gate, a circle of yellow light large enough to step through, closed in on itself like a wilted flower, dimmed, then vanished altogether. Only a faint mist remained; this soon dissipated, leaving no sign of the temporary doorway between her world and the humans'.

This is not the reception I expected, even with the Unseleighe assaulting the castle with levin bolts, she thought, making her way down the empty corridor. Her anxiety grew as she wondered what had happened to their domain while she was away pretending to be a human.

A spider webbing of magical energy danced on the floor and walls, crackling like electricity, blocking her path. She'd seen this power before. Unseleighe power . . . 

Levin bolt . . . 

And she ducked behind a stone arch moments before an explosion ripped through the palace. The blast started at the end of the long hallway and swept its length with dust and rock.

"Great merciful Danaa!" Samantha shouted as the explosion knocked her backward. Though the blast slammed her against the rock wall, her only injury was a small gash in her leg. She struggled to her feet.

The healers can tend to this soon enough, she thought, eyeing the ceiling warily. That is, if this corridor doesn't collapse. I doubt I could summon a shield strong enough to protect me from that.

The blast confirmed her worst fears. The explosion's strength proved that it was not just a powerful levin bolt, but one sent from nearby. The Unseleighe must have penetrated the outer perimeter. This is worse than the King said it was.

She listened, but heard no others in the castle, and tried to remember how many layers of wall protected them. Four, five chambers and a hallway. That bolt must have taken out the outer wing. Gods, how many of those have struck the castle? From this she guessed the probable distance of the enemy to be within sight of the castle.

She clamored past portions of walls and ceiling, through a dusty tunnel that was once a spacious hallway, and peered into the gloom ahead of her. Nothing. No movement, no sounds, save for the falling dust. Faerielights flickered, threatened to go out. Where is all the power going?

After a few false turns, she came upon what was left of the King's chambers. She viewed the remains with cool detachment. Obviously, more than one levin bolt had struck the castle; one had rent a larger, gaping hole where the chamber's entrance once stood. Through this opening she saw that the entire wing had indeed collapsed. She gasped at the sight, hearing nothing except her beating heart.

When her initial shock subsided, she saw the first victims on the floor, some crushed by falling rock, some the victims of elf-shot. Fifteen in all. She checked the bodies for life, with little hope. Had they lived the King would never have left them behind. Among the dead she found a servant, a nobleman of the northern province, and a King's guardsman. Though she knew none of them, she recognized the guardsman, a loyal elder who trained many of the new recruits.

He probably died protecting the King, she thought sadly. Where is the royal family?

Through the crumbling hole in the castle's side she caught a glimpse of the domain of Avalon, then, occupying it in large numbers, the enemy. Her breath caught.

There are so many of them. How could they have summoned that many Unseleighe, and the Court not know it until now?

Over a stretch of rolling, emerald hills a vast blanket of Unseleighe elves swarmed like bees, preparing for the final charge. Their banners, black silken ribbons dangling from staffs, and flags with the Unseleighe black eagle crest, left no doubt in Samantha's mind who was behind the attack. What she first took for solely Unseleighe forces was a mixture of Unseleighe, Bane-Sidhe, gargoyles, and other creatures of unknown origin. Mercenaries.

Unseleighe mages gathered at the crest of a hill seemed to be summoning the power for another levin bolt hit. She did not recognize the family, or even the Court they came from; Unseleighe in general stayed away from Elfhame Avalon, so the Seleighe Court never became familiar with the vermin. Unseleighe kept to other regions of the elven lands, unless they planned an invasion, and had the means to carry one out. Clearly, to have gone this far, they had access to considerable power.

You will not win this one, she promised the Unseleighe. They may win the battle, but not the war. Despite her bravado, she knew the situation was grim, and unless something happened soon to turn the battle around, Samantha knew the survivors would probably have to flee Elfhame Avalon.

That's why they summoned me, she thought. And at the last minute, too. She searched the castle for her brethren, finding many bodies, wreckage, levin bolt damage. She sensed their presence somewhere in the castle, and her Sight took her deeper, to the lower levels of the castle, areas few of the Court ever saw.

She found two weary guards watching a stairwell, their reaction disturbingly slow when they saw her. Blood stained their livery, a pale blue uniform with a cover of protective bronze mail. The two guards, young recruits, she noted from the shortness of their pointed ears, blinked at her briefly, as if wondering where she could have come from.

"Lady Samantha," one said. "I thought I felt the Gate," he added wearily. After hearing the pitch of his voice, she subtracted a few years from her original estimate. They're employing elven children now? "I am Iarbanel, humble servant to our crown. King Traigthren told us to be watching for you. We are to escort you to where they are waiting."

Waiting for what? A miracle? she wanted to ask. The other guard stepped forward. Samantha recognized her. Ethlinn. She was once engaged to be married to a nobleman. Now, she's a soldier? She stared openly, unable to believe their lot had fallen so far. Ethlinn looked too tired to take offense.

"Take me to King Traigthren," Samantha said, trying not to let her edginess show.

In silence Iarbanel and Ethlinn led her to a chamber she didn't even know existed. Deep underground, fortified with enormous flagstones, the room housed what remained of the Court. She doubted any harm could come to anyone inside, even if the castle collapsed completely.

Which isn't an unrealistic fear . . . It may yet become a tomb.

King Traigthren Tuiereann, Ruler of Elfhame Avalon, sat on a large high-backed chair. Evidently, it was serving as a makeshift throne. He was leaning over a heavy oak table with his head in his hands and a tattered ermine cloak pulled around him. His gold crown sat on the table. Guards sat around in various stages of exhaustion, one sleeping, one standing wearily at attention. Samantha counted five in all, including the two who had met her above.

Is this all that's left of Avalon?

In one corner on the floor a body lay wrapped in a golden cloth, with the Avalon emblem prominent in its center. Queen Faldi. Most of the Court was missing from the room; Samantha feared the worst. Prince Aedham, a mere elven child, sat forlornly beside his father, his eyes red with tears, wailing his grief into his father's cloak. Long, tightly curled black hair drooped over his shoulders, concealing all but the upper tip of his young elven ears. Broad of shoulder for one so young, the Prince resembled his father in other ways; on Samantha's last visit, she had learned of his mage potential.

Niamh, the King's Engineer, sat near an odd-looking weapon, tinkering with it madly, as if his enthusiasm alone would win the day. Samantha assumed that trauma had caused the poor elf to crack, and this was just another expression of elven insanity.

Two Counts from Highland provinces tried unsuccessfully to win the King's attention. King Traigthren ignored them. He reached down for his son's hand, who grabbed it and started wailing even louder. There were other elves, here and there in the shadows, some moving, some not.

Two bright faerielights illuminated the room from a high ceiling. Overhead, another levin bolt rumbled, and through the vibration of the floor, Samantha sensed the massive weight of still more rock coming down. Dust sprinkled from the ceiling. Faerielights flickered, dimmed.

King Traigthren looked up at Samantha. His expression chilled her. Even for an elf he had aged tremendously, and at that moment looked as if he was in his final century. A strip of bloodied cloth covered the tip of one of his pointed ears. His haunted eyes told her everything.

The King has given up.

"I thank you for coming to us in our final moments, daughter," the King said slowly, with a whisper that was heavy with defeat. He gently released his son's hand and pulled the cloak around him.

Daughter. The word, which he had never spoken to her before, sounded strange coming from his lips. No one in the room seemed to notice. By mutual agreement King Traigthren had never acknowledged his relationship with Samantha, as she was the offspring from a previous, scandalous liaison. She easily forgot that she might have been Queen someday, had history dealt a different hand. Royal life never suited her, and even an elven existence proved boring once she came of age, this being the main reason she lived with the unpredictable, uncontrollable humans and their equally chaotic world. And, given the fate of the former Queen, it was just as well that history had omitted her from the royal succession.

The two noblemen turned and regarded Samantha with disdain. "You've summoned a mere female to take what's left of Avalon to safety?"

There it was. Now that her mission was no longer a mystery, she relaxed a little at the revelation. The snipe at her gender did not offend her. She had other things to worry about now.

"May I remind you both of the less than adequate job the male contingent of the Court did of protecting the nodes!" the King roared. Guards looked up. The noblemen looked away. Even the Prince had the presence of mind to stop crying at his father's outburst.

"How did the Unseleighe seize the nodes?" Samantha asked. "I didn't think such a thing was possible."

The King leaned back, the old wooden chair creaking loudly in the small, damp room. He looked at his hands as he spoke, a habit Samantha knew showed his embarrassment.

"Evidently, neither did our mages, none of whom are with us today. We acted so slowly when the danger was upon us. We'd received a message through the Oracle from Outremer. A warning, actually. Long ago, it now seems. This was during the new year's feast, the time of year we are least likely to be worried about anything, much less a confrontation with the Unseleighe."

Samantha's ears pricked at the mention of Outremer; her mother was from that Elfhame.

The King seemed to notice her interest. "Outremer tried to warn us. In fact, they did warn us, but in our arrogance we assumed that no Unseleighe had the power to conquer us. Our nodes were beyond danger, we thought. After all, had they not been in our Elfhame for millennium?" The King shrugged. "We all but ignored the message. We went about our affairs, sending only a few scouts to see if Unseleighe were gathering at the edge of our domain. Two of the scouts failed to return. We thought they were simply out exploring. That is, until we found their bodies. Or what was left of them." He glanced over at his wife's corpse, the pain and regret of his actions evident on his exhausted features. "We discovered the threat's true extent only recently. We attempted to communicate with Outremer, to inquire of the Unseleighe. Something blocked us. The message never arrived, and we assumed something had happened to them."

Samantha nodded, understanding the complacency that had led to this situation. Status quo. One of the reasons I left. She looked away, down at the Prince who sat tiredly on the floor. The elfling nodded off for a moment, then jolted wide-awake.

Half brother, she thought. Then, No, he's my brother. Brethren. Kin. And I'm to be his protector.

"Even when the flow of one of the nodes ceased, we thought little of it at the time. This has happened before, particularly in the early days, and never proved to be permanent. What we did not know was that the Unseleighe had seized it, then used it to render their armies invisible to our Sight. Once the armies entered the domain, they set into motion the spells to seize the other nine nodes."

They might have prevented this, had the mages shown more . . . attentiveness, she speculated, but saw no need to mention this to the King. King Traigthren already knew, in the most personal way, that his Court had failed to protect itself.

Samantha shook her head, the fatigue and vertigo still hanging on. "Who are they? I didn't recognize any of the banners."

"Zeldan Dhu," the King spat.

One of the guards groaned at the mention of the Unseleighe name. Fear masked the faces of those who remained quiet; evidently, they'd already acquainted themselves with Zeldan and his armies.

"They're not going to stop until we're all dead," the King said, glancing down at his son.

The elfling looked up, suddenly aware they were talking about him. The King stroked his head. "Don't worry, son. We're going to get you out of here. They will not get their hands on you. They'll have to kill me first. My death—" Another explosion roared, cutting off his sentence. This one felt closer than the previous one and stirred up a thick layer of dust. One of the faerielights flickered out, leaving them with only one. The group stirred, murmured frightened sounds. The King continued, "—is looking like a real possibility."

The dust settled, and the vibration rumbled to a stop.

"Have you decided where we will go?" Samantha said, though she had a good idea what the answer would be.

"The humans' world, of course. We must hide the Prince further, so that even if they see him in public, they will have no idea who he is."

Samantha frowned. "Of course, we have concealing spells. They give us the appearance of being human, and some ability to interact with them without practice. Sire, I've lived with the humans for many years. I have never once become suspect."

The King frowned. "Not good enough, my dear Samantha. They will not stop until they find every last one of the royal family. While one of us lives, they will never feel safe."

The King's request was becoming more and more disturbing; perhaps he had arranged some sort of surrender without telling anyone. Whatever became of this, he didn't sound like he would live much longer.

"The spell will activate when you and my son Gate back to the Earthplane," The King said, with finality. "The spell will not only give Prince Aedham the appearance of a human, he will . . ." The King's words trailed off as he looked down at his son, who had fallen asleep at his feet, curled up like a cat. "He will have the mind, abilities, and memory of a typical adolescent human male, thirteen years of age, with the regular growth spurts common to the species at that age. The Prince will remember nothing of the elven lands, Elfhame Avalon, his father and family, his dead mother, his mentors, his playmates, who have already died in this terrible battle. I will leave some of the details for you to work out once you both arrive."

Samantha wondered if the battle had touched the King's mind. This plan was, to say the least, extreme. Total amnesia? No memory of Avalon? She masked her doubts carefully. This was her King, and she was a faithful subject. Not only was it heresy to question him, the remaining members of Elfhame Avalon needed a single, strong ruler. They needed unity, now more than ever.

Survival. In its own perverse way, the plan makes sense.

"Your hesitancy," the King said slyly, "is understandable. But this is the only way I can be certain my son is protected. This total lack of memory will prevent any Unseleighe from reading his mind, if only by accident, and discovering his true identity. With the proper adjustments, he could be your son."

"It will be done," Samantha said without hesitation, although she didn't much like the notion of making herself appear older to become his human "parent."

The King stood, regarding the remaining soldiers of his Guard. "We must protect our youngest. Our children, even older children who are serving me in the capacity of adults, will go first. If we lose the nodes altogether, at least our most precious commodity will survive. You," he said, pointing at an elfling in full battle regalia, "and you. Step forward. Prepare to leave your heavy weapons behind. The less metal the better. And remove your chain mail. Yes, that's it."

Ethlinn and Iarbanel began stripping all metal from their battle dress.

"If we have the power, we will all go at once. If not, and if the rest of us survive," the King said, gesturing toward the remaining elves in the small room, "long enough to follow you in a later Gating, it may be several years, or decades, relative to yours and the Prince's arrival. Or possibly even before." The King offered his first smile since her arrival. "We might already be there."

"Yes," she agreed. Time to think about the consequences of that situation later. "Gating becomes inaccurate under these conditions," she said to assert her knowledge on the matter. Better to let the King feel confident with who he's trusting his heir with. "We do have two nodes left," she pointed out, "which is about double what we would need to Gate the survivors. All the survivors."

The King leaned over and gently woke his son, who rose with a start from his comfortable, curled position. He spoke in an undertone to the Prince, apparently explaining to him what was about to happen.

On Samantha's right, Niamh muttered loudly to himself as he diddled with what she perceived now to be a weapon of some sort. Its appearance suggested a cross between an AK-47 machine gun and laser light show equipment. Thick cables ran to what had to be banks of batteries, cradled by a backpack. Niamh looked up at Samantha and the King, his face aglow with success.

"Sire!" Niamh said, struggling with the backpack. Even for an elf, Niamh was small. "I think I have it this time."

"That's . . . wonderful news, Niamh," the King said. He did not sound excited. Apparently, Niamh had "had it" before. "We robbed it from the humans some time back," he said, waving absently at the weapon. "The mages thought they might be able to amplify magic, enhance our fighting capabilities. But in Underhill, the godsforsaken thing refuses to work."

"Have faith!" Niamh said. "There. That pebble." He pointed and aimed at a small stone in the corner of the chamber. Samantha stepped back in reflex; no one else bothered.

Niamh closed his eyes, squeezed a trigger. Samantha held her breath as nothing happened.

"If only we had a mage," Niamh said dejectedly. "I know we could beat the Unseleighe back, quick like."

"It worked in the humans' world," a new voice said.

Samantha turned to see Marbann, one of the King's knights. Marbann was easily the tallest elf in the chamber, strong and muscular, with blond curly hair and particularly long ears, even though he wasn't all that old. He wore the tunic and chain mail of battle, though the latter had taken some major hits. The tip of his sword was broken, the blade bent, his right arm bloodied. When he saw Samantha, his expression softened, then became sad.

Thank the gods, you're alive, Samantha thought as she ran to embrace him.

"We must leave now," Marbann said urgently, releasing himself gently from Samantha's arms. "The Unseleighe are crossing the moat now." The news did not seem to surprise anyone. As Marbann spoke, Samantha examined his injured arm, remembering her own leg wound when she saw the blood. Both wounds had stopped bleeding; they would both need more comprehensive healing later.

"Another node has gone over to the Unseleighe," Marbann said.

The King groaned and looked down at his son. "That last hit. We must get out of here now. While we still can."

"We'll have to go a few at a time," Marbann said. "Then, if it holds out . . ."

"Samantha, you take my son," King Traigthren said. "You will both leave immediately."

The Prince stepped backward, away from Samantha, toward the rear corner. "I don't want to go, Father," he said simply.

"But you must," the King said impatiently. "You have no choice!"

"I will be deserting the family!" he wailed. He stood resolutely with his arms crossed, with such apparent unwillingness to leave it looked like a direct levin bolt would be necessary to persuade him. "What will you do to protect yourselves if you cannot escape? You need as many adults here as possible."

"You are not an adult," the King said. The Prince flinched at the insult. "And there is very little family left," he added, glancing at the shrouded body of the Queen. "You are still a child, and you haven't even begun to explore your magical potential. I suspect you could be a powerful mage someday, but now is not the time for debate!"

"If you activate the spell to turn me into a human, won't that divert power from the nodes?"

"Node," the King corrected. "We only have one left."

"My point precisely!" the Prince said. "This plan to hide me with the humans . . . I have doubts."

Apparently he wasn't missing a thing when he "slept". . . .

"Doubts you may have, but say in it you have not," the King said, his temper slipping visibly. "You are more liability than asset right now."

Samantha thought the argument would soon escalate into a full battle; the elfling was trying to be a hotheaded adult and succeeding nicely.

"You don't understand Zeldan Dhu the way I do," the King insisted. "I know you're trying to be mature, but now is not the time to grow up. Do as I say. You don't even have to listen to reason. Just obey it."

The Prince's face changed slowly from anger and self-righteousness to sadness and, inevitably, tears. The King went to his son and held him for a long time, then whispered something inaudible to him. The Prince nodded his reply.

"Farewell, Father," the Prince said. His shoulders drooped, and his gaze dropped to the floor. In his own moment of defeat, his posture mirrored his father's. Then he looked up, jutted his chin out, and marched over to Samantha's side, with a single tear trickling down his cheek.

He's trying to look so strong, and failing so completely. He's crying inside so loudly the enemy can probably hear it.

"We're ready," Samantha said. "Who will summon the Gate?"

"I will," Marbann said. "With your assistance, sire," he added, bowing deeply.

"Of course," the King said, and the guards cleared an empty space in the middle of the chamber. Marbann and the King stood facing each other an arm's length apart, then raised their arms, forming a circle. The faerielight dimmed as a low resonant hum began to vibrate in the floor, then reached up the wall. Several long moments passed with no visible sign of the Gate, and Samantha began to worry.

Gods help us all if they fail, she thought. Have the Unseleighe already seized the remaining node while the King squabbled with his son?

Light flickered in the air, but this was not the comforting arc of Gate light. Power popped and crackled and began dancing across the floor with the familiar power of destruction.

Not another levin bolt . . .

She instinctively grabbed the Prince and dropped to the floor. The wail of the incoming blast reached even their ears, deep below ground level.

"Everybody!" Samantha screamed, oblivious to royal protocol. "Get down! Levin bolt!"

Marbann turned toward Samantha, but made no move to follow her suggestion. His look was maniacal and desperate. The King remained standing, arms raised. He also seemed to be ignoring the approaching blast.

When it came, the Prince had covered both ears against the deafening wail of the bolt, the roar drowning out his screams. The room rose and settled as the concussion rippled through the castle like an earthquake, throwing everybody in the small chamber to one side. Except the King and Marbann; they stood in precisely the same spot, this time protected by the reddish hue of a shield, surrounding them in a sphere.

Then Samantha realized what Marbann had done, and why he had looked so crazed. He had reached directly for the incoming levin bolt, and siphoned off enough power to create a shield and protect their tiny room from harm.

Only a mage, or someone incredibly stupid, or practical, would do this, she knew. We would have all died otherwise.

The King and his subject visibly drew power from the levin bolt's residue, and trickles of red and yellow tendrils leaked through the walls and floor, and formed a swirling, circular cluster of light between them.

Samantha took the Prince's small hand and walked toward the Gate. Ethlinn and Iarbanel stepped close behind them.

Fare thee well, Elfhame Avalon, she thought as they entered the circle of light.

The vertigo returned, and the colors swirled angrily around her. She sensed the two guards close by, but they were only dim outlines in the light.

Please, King, come through now! she thought as she held the Prince closer to her. The Gate will hold!

But before the rest followed them through the Gate, Samantha felt another explosion. The Gate slammed shut, leaving them cradled in a web of light. She felt the change as they passed between the worlds, her own vision blurred by a cloud of gray fog; presently, she felt the solid ground of the Earthplane beneath her feet. Rich, moist earth. The smell of humus.

Unbalanced, she fell to her knees. The Prince was beside her, his eyes closed, unconscious. The two guards had fallen down as well and were crouched a short distance away. She looked frantically for the rest.

When it became obvious even to her scrambled senses that the others did not succeed in crossing, she let out a wail of grief that echoed throughout the forest that now surrounded them.

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