Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Prologue - Chapter One


T. C. Southwell

Copyright (C) 2007 by T. C. Southwell. All rights reserved.

This book is sold subject to the conditions that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, copied, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any other format or changed in any way, including the author's name and title, and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

First and foremost, Mike Baum and Janet Longman for their unstinting support and encouragement, the loan of a pc for many months, not to mention the use of their printer. My mother, without whose financial support I could not have dedicated myself to my writing for ten years. My former agent, Isabel Cooke, whose encouragement and enthusiasm led to many more books being written, including this one. My current agent, Su Stephan, who made this publication possible.

Published by Wizard Press.
Chapter One - Child of Light
Chapter Two - Son of Darkness
Chapter Three - The First Ward
Chapter Four - Fire Demon
Chapter Five - Earth Demon
Chapter Six - Water Demon
Chapter Seven - The Isle of Lume
Chapter Eight - The Third Ward
Chapter Nine - Air Demon
Chapter Ten - The Fourth Ward
Chapter Eleven - The City
Chapter Twelve - The Old Kingdom
Chapter Thirteen - Revelation
Chapter Fourteen - Sacrifice
Chapter Fifteen - Betrayal
Chapter Sixteen - The Sixth Ward
Chapter Seventeen - The Seventh Ward
Chapter Eighteen - Ascension of the Black Lord


The seeress gripped the edge of the glass, and her knuckles whitened as her brows drew together over eyes that filled with horror. The acolyte who watched over Elder Mother while she was absorbed in her scrying hurried to her side, frightened by her rigid stance and the pallor that washed the colour from her cheeks.

"What is it, Mother?" she whispered, gripping the seeress' shoulder.

Ellese sat unmoving, her gaze locked on that faraway event visible only to her within the glass. The acolyte glanced at the clear round glass in its simple silver frame, which for her held nothing but the book lined wooden shelves beyond. She waited, unwilling to disturb Elder Mother's intense concentration. The seeress lowered her hands and drew a deep, shuddering breath, blinking.

"The Black Lord!" Her voice rasped with dread, and her eyes remained glazed. "The evil has finally found a way to enter this world, to break the wards set by the ancient wizards."

The girl stared at the seeress with undisguised terror, her hands bunched in her robe, wringing it. "How?"

"A boy child, born below. He will be sent."

"When will he come?"

Ellese's eyes regained their focus. "Not for a time yet. He still has to grow, to be taught the evil powers and their use. Twenty years, if we are fortunate. Time to prepare ourselves, at least." The acolyte sagged with relief, and Elder Mother said, "Do not look so happy, child, you will still be here." She stood up. "Send a message to all the Elder Mothers. We must have a meeting, we must plan our defence."

The acolyte nodded and hurried out, lifting the flowing skirts of her white healer's robe so that they did not hamper her. Ellese crossed the room to stare out of the abbey window, her eyes blind to the midwinter snow that covered the garden in a thick blanket. Gentle gusts eddied the falling flakes into swirling patterns, brushing against the windows, sliding down to gather on the ledge. She shivered, but not with cold, for the fire that roared in the hearth warmed the cosy book-lined room with its wooden panelling and thick woollen maroon curtains.

The table at which she had been sitting occupied one corner of the room opposite the stone fireplace. The glass sat innocuously on it, clear and dead now. Tidily arranged papers filled the corners of the desk, and a small ink well and writing plumes stood at its centre. The cold, pale light from the windows mingled with the warm glow of the fire to illuminate the myriad ancient tomes that filled the bookshelves. The cosy normality of the room vanished as she recalled the horrible vision that she had just witnessed.

Within the deep gloomy caverns of the Underworld, a boy child had been born. The great cavern in which the event had taken place had been formed by magic eons ago, the rock twisted and warped by the will of the god who had created it. Huge columns of solidified magma upheld the vaulted ceiling of stretched, striated rock, cooled in the midst of its oozing, patterned with smears and blobs. The inner fire shone from cracks in the walls and floor, throwing lurid light in twisted patterns. Further light was cast by fire demons in true form, sickly hues of green and orange flame.

The demons' chanting had all but drowned out the screams of the child's mother as she died on the stone altar, her belly torn open as the Black Lord ripped the baby from her womb. The boy's cries had stopped when the Black Lord inscribed a dark rune upon his head, and his eyes glazed under the evil power. The Lord of the Underworld handed the bloody infant to a minion, who wrapped him in a cloth. By then the mother was dead, her blood pooling on the floor.

The infant stood no chance against the corruption of the Underworld. He would be warped, moulded as the Black Lord wished, and none could save him from his fate. Ellese's heart twisted with pity as she recalled the tiny child, slick with his mother's blood. He was an innocent new born babe, doomed to be a helpless pawn in the hands of the Black Lord. She had no doubt that he would suffer terribly in the Underworld, but far worse than his horrific birth had been the ritual that the Black Lord had performed before he had torn the infant from his mother's womb.

A month later, the abbey's hall filled with old women, Elder Mothers gathered from the various abbeys all over the land. The pillar-lined room had been built as a dining hall, but doubled as a meeting place for the Council of Elders. Sturdy tables and chairs cluttered its polished stone floor, and stained-glass windows allowed streams of sunlight in to brighten it. The tables had been pushed against the walls, and the chairs were arranged into rows where the old ladies sat, facing a polished bur-wood desk.

Acolytes and lesser healers stood near the tables, armed with kettles of brewing tea, buttered scones and pastries. Others dashed in and out with more boiling water or fresh pastries, steaming hot from the kitchen ovens. An air of aged wisdom hung over the multitude of Elder Mothers. Their eyes were faded and their bodies frail, but they were still sharp of mind and tongue.

The seeress Ellese sat behind the desk and studied the sea of wrinkled faces. It bobbed and waved like an ocean, accompanied by sniffles, hacking coughs and wheezing breaths as the old women aired their infirmities, illnesses associated with age, which no healing could cure. Young acolytes plied them with cups of milk or tea, balancing trays of pastries as they wound amid the throng, drawn by snapping fingers and stopped by imperiously-outstretched hands. The Elder Mothers muttered in a low-pitched hum, some discussing the topic on hand, others doubtless just swapping gossip. Ellese sighed and rapped on the desk, drawing all eyes to her, some of which wandered past without pause. The majority of her audience were stern-faced matrons, but a few were truly ancient.

"You know why we are here. You all know what has happened. I ask you today for your thoughts. What are we going to do about it?" Ellese spoke loudly, for many old ladies held brass trumpets to their ears and leant forward with peevish frowns. She scanned the group hopefully.

A robust, middle-aged woman called, "Rescue the child."

Ellese's lips curved in a bitter smile. "Easier said than done, Merris, considering that he is in the Underworld. Are you volunteering?"

A murmur swept the room, mixed with a few titters. Merris glowered at her grinning neighbour, and many Elder Mothers muttered to their friends behind withered hands. A wizened crone stood, leaning heavily on a gnarled stick.

"Find a way to bind him when he emerges," she quavered.

Ellese nodded. "A good idea, but what?"

"There must be something." She glanced around. "What is his nature? There must be something that will work."

"He is a human child. As you know, the Black Lord cannot break the wards. He is trapped in the Underworld, along with all his foul servants." Ellese fixed the woman with steely grey eyes. "This boy will travel freely to the Overworld, and he will be able to break the wards. The demons will raise him, teach him their ways, prepare him for the day when he will spread his evil over the land and raise armies to lay waste to those who do not bow to him."

The old woman frowned. "He is not possessed?"

Ellese shook her head. "He is worse. They will fill him with their evil power and corrupt his mind with their teachings, yet the power of the wards will not stop him, for he is human."

Another Elder Mother stood up. "Then he will only be a black mage. What of preparing an army to capture him when he emerges?"

Ellese looked down at the desk, her heart filled with despair. All the more obvious suggestions would be worthless, and she hated to reject each as it was spoken. "He will wield the power of the Black Lord. No man will be able to stand against him. The foul creatures of the night will worship him, and the dark races with follow him. The boy will be invincible by any normal means. When he rises, he will not be a mere black mage." She paused, her hands curling into fists. "He has been born a god."

A hubbub started as the women objected to this sweeping statement, turning to each other for support. A plump, florid-faced woman shouted, "Why call us here, and ask for our help, when there is no solution to this threat?"

Ellese banged on the desk again, subduing the uproar a little. "There is a solution. There has to be, but perhaps we are not capable of thinking of it. I had hoped that one of you had been given a vision or dream, some sign from the Lady to guide us."

Silence fell as wrinkled brows furrowed, searching their memories for such a dream, and ancient eyes narrowed and glanced at neighbours. Ellese scanned the assembly with growing desperation. For the last month she had racked her brains for a solution, but had found none. Surely one of these wise women knew the answer to this threat? Surely someone had been given a sign, a vision, by the Lady? The goddess would not abandon them in their hour of need.
A tall, angular woman at the back of the assembly stood, glancing around shyly as all eyes turned to her. A handsome healer with honey-blond hair, she was the youngest Elder Mother there, barely out of her twenties. She looked out of place among so many grey-heads, and fiddled nervously with her silver healer's necklet.

Ellese smiled with relief and assurance. "Yes, Larris?"

Larris straightened, lifting her chin. "I think I know what we need to do."


Child of light

Mirra sat cross-legged on the grass of the sun-drenched garden, weaving a chain of bright summer flowers. Her slender fingers deftly twined the blossoms together, and the sun burnished the long flaxen hair that hung about her face as she bent over her task. Thick dark lashes framed gentle blue-green eyes in a serene, delicately-featured face.

Tallis, who sat beside her, picked up her own garland and resumed her work with a sigh. This morning, at the celebration for Mirra's sixteenth birthday, she had watched Mirra opening her gifts, wondering how happy she would be if she knew what was in store for her. Everyone knew but Mirra, and that seemed so unfair. The secrecy puzzled her, for surely it would be better if Mirra could prepare for what lay ahead? She looked down at the wreckage in her hands and sighed again, trying to weave a bright yellow daisy into the disaster.

Ellese gazed down at the girls from her study window, which overlooked the garden in the centre of the abbey. Her eyes burnt with unshed tears as she watched Mirra crown her friend with the daisy chain. High girlish laughter wafted in through the open window on the warm summer air. How she wished that things were different.

The Black Lord's human weapon, Bane, had emerged from the Underworld two years ago, little more than a boy, if the stories about him were true. From the descriptions given by those unfortunate enough to have seen him, he was now about twenty years old, an estimate she knew to be accurate. The moment that he had set foot above ground, an army had gathered around him. First to join were the dark creatures that inhabited the entrance to the Underworld, through which Bane had emerged.

The enormous cave, fanged with pillars of rock, gaped at the blasted lands around it from the side of a solitary crag rising unnaturally out of a flat plain far to the north. The cavern was large enough to accommodate two cities within its bounds, and its denizens had built a metropolis of mud and stone that filled almost half of it. Within its dim confines, generations of grims, wights, night crawlers and vampires had lived and died, awaiting the Black Lord's rising.

The dark power that emanated from the Underworld in a fetid exhalation had killed all life for leagues around, and only petrified forests stood sentinel on the barren plains. Any human who had ever dared to set foot in the cavern had been torn apart and devoured. The dark creatures ventured out only at night to hunt, preying on the animals who dwelt beyond the influence of the dark power. No human lived within a hundred leagues of the cave, for to do so was certain death.

Now the monsters had braved the sunlight to leave their sanctuary and follow Bane. As he moved away from the cavern, droves of goblins, trolls, rock howlers and gnomes rallied around him, all worshippers of the Black lord. They had emerged from their underground warrens and mountain caves in droves to enlist, armed with their simple, brutish weapons. Finally humans had joined his foul mob, swelling its ranks to thousands. Every criminal, vagrant, bandit, mercenary and outcast had flocked to his banner, drawn by the promise of riches and conquest. His army had already conquered several small kingdoms, and as they did, more joined, some from fear, others from greed, until a huge horde of rabble now marched behind him.

With these, he swept across the Overworld in an unstoppable tide, slaughtering all in his path. Armies fell before his advance like wheat before a scythe, and those that fled were hunted down without mercy. Tales of torture, rape, mutilations and wanton atrocities preceded him, descriptions of his cruelty sickened all who heard them. The stories told of his complete lack of mercy, or any other vaguely human emotion. He revelled in death and destruction, and laughed at his hapless victims' suffering. Ruined towns and fields of rotting dead lay strewn in his wake, breeding dread diseases that afflicted the few survivors, who then spread it throughout the land. Whole towns died without ever seeing the Black Lord's army, defeated by the sickness that Bane had unleashed.

King Margorah, ruler of the largest kingdom in the Overworld, fought Bane to a bloody standstill in a three-day battle that laid waste to vast tracts of land and two towns. When at last Margorah realised that he faced defeat, countless dead paved his retreating army's path as the dark creatures hunted within his camp each night until he reached his citadel. There, the dead gathered in mounds at the foot of his walls, yet still he refused to accept defeat, determined to fight to the last man. After five days, Bane grew bored and razed the fortress with black fire, killing all within with a single stroke of power.

Lesser rulers, barons and lords, fell to the rag-tag horde in a few hours, overrun by sheer numbers. Although Bane's army dwindled with each encounter, it soon swelled again with fresh worshippers and fortune-seekers. Towns in his path were abandoned as their residents fled in a desperate bid to save themselves. All mankind feared the coming of Bane, whose name was whispered with deep loathing and dread.

For weeks now, the roads past the abbey had been clogged with fleeing people carrying bundles on their backs and children on their hips, driving their few livestock before them. The more affluent rode in wagons or carriages, wealthy ladies sent away to doubtful safety by their husbands, tended by servants and flunkies. Their lordly spouses remained to gird their armies for futile war, grist to Bane's mill of unending bloodlust. All would flee until they reached the sea, then there would be nowhere to go. As they huddled in the coastal towns, the Underworld's army marched closer, bringing with it the death that their flight had only delayed. Doom had settled over the land like a dull miasma, belying the bright spring days that should have been joyous.

Bane's army was just a hundred miles from the abbey now, and Ellese knew that the time had come for Mirra to fulfil her destiny. She had been raised within the protection of the abbey, and knew nothing of Bane. Sheltered from the wickedness of the world and taught only of its beauties, she had grown up a happy, laughing child, innocent in a profound manner that sometimes made her seem simple, until a person gazed deep into her eyes and found the utter serenity there.

Ellese watched Tallis present Mirra with a lopsided garland, then they jumped up and ran into the abbey, trailing giggles. She turned from the window with a sigh. She had never doubted Larris' vision, but as the tales of horror reached her, she began to worry. Still, she could not put it off any longer. Tomorrow, it had to be done tomorrow.

The silence that greeted her in the breakfast hall the next morning surprised Mirra. A sense of doom hung in the air, and her smile faded as she headed for her seat beside Tallis. Many young acolytes sent her timid smiles, their eyes sliding away. Her friend was intent on her porridge, and Mirra began to spoon her own with keen appetite.

"Why is everyone so quiet today?"

Tallis looked around shrugged. "You are to see Elder Mother after breakfast."

"What about?"

"Ask Elder Mother."

When she had finished breakfast, Mirra ran to Ellese's study, bouncing in with a grin as Ellese turned from the window. The sadness in the seeress' eyes stopped Mirra's rush to hug her, and she advanced slowly, her expression becoming solemn.

"What is wrong with everyone?"

"We are all a little sad."


Ellese sighed. "Because today, you must leave us and go out into the world. You are sixteen now, and I know normally girls leave at eighteen, but you are ready. It is time."

Mirra's eyes lit up. "How wonderful! Why is everyone sad?"

"Because we will miss you, of course."

"I shall miss you all too, but I have always wanted to see the world."

"And so you shall, my dear." Ellese shuddered and became brisk to hide her pain. "So, when you have packed, the cart will be waiting to take you to your new home. We have a lovely place in the woods for you."

"Thank you, Mother!" Mirra flung her arms around the old seeress' neck and kissed her on the cheek. Ellese struggled to hide the sorrow that made her heart ache.

"Now, now, child." She disentangled herself. "Go and get ready."

Mirra skipped along bright corridors to the grey cell that had been her home for the last sixteen years. It seemed poky and uninviting now that her mind was filled with visions of a little thatched cottage nestled in a forest glade. Her few possessions were swiftly packed into a worn leather bag, and with a last look around at the drab chamber, she ran to tell Tallis. She found her friend in the vegetable garden at the back of the abbey, pulling weeds from orderly rows of cabbages. Flowering fruit trees hemmed the garden and filled the warm air with their heady scent. Birdsong offset the dull rumble of wagon wheels on the road.

Mirra pounced on her friend, laughing with childish glee. "I am leaving, Tallis! Is it not wonderful? I am to have my very own house, in the woods, just as I have always wanted!"

Tallis hugged her back, swallowing the sorrow that threatened to leak from her soft brown eyes. "That is ... wonderful, Mir."

Mirra did not notice her friend's sadness, she was too excited at the prospect of finally leaving the abbey to become a true healer. She bounced around, avoiding the plump cabbage heads. "In two years your turn will come. It will be marvelous! I shall heal the sick people, and animals too!"
Tallis looked down at the wilting weeds she held. "Yes, you are so good at it. I will never be as good as you."

"Nonsense, you are just as good as me, and much better at cooking and sewing!"

They looked up at the sound of footsteps, to find Ellese approaching. The grey-haired seeress seemed to have aged in the last day, and her smile was tired.

"All ready, Mirra?"

"Yes!" She picked up her bag. "Can Tal come with us, just to see?"

Ellese inclined her head. "Of course she may, if she wishes."

Mirra turned to Tallis, who forced a bright smile and nodded.

The retired plough horse pulled the wagon beside the clogged road, his iron-shod feet setting up a dull clopping. The people who thronged the road walked in grim silence, their eyes scared and despairing. They pushed barrows piled high with their possessions, and drove bellowing livestock before them. The rumble of wheels mingled with dogs' yapping and the wails of tired children who stumbled among the trudging people.

Mirra smiled and waved, and a few peasants responded half-heartedly. The desolation in their eyes and the misery that hung over the throng puzzled the young healer. Dust clung to the people's sweat-streaked faces, and drovers goaded footsore oxen that bawled in protest. Some had pulled off the road to huddle around campfires, warming food for hungry children and resting exhausted beasts. Mirra sensed their fatigue in her bones, and a frown wrinkled her brow.

She turned to Ellese. "Where do they all go, Mother? Why are they so sad?"

Ellese glanced away. "They go to the sea."

"Whatever for? They are all so tired."

"To feed the fishes," Tallis said, and the seeress shot her sharp, warning glance.

"Because they must," Elder Mother stated, her tone discouraging further enquiry on the subject.

Mirra thought about that, then shrugged it off. Elder Mother's terse reply did not answer her question, but Ellese must have her reasons. Mirra did not have a questioning nature, hers was too serene for that. Accepting things on face value was her way, and she never expected people to lie to her. She trusted Elder Mother implicitly, and if Ellese did not wish her to know, then she was content to remain ignorant.

Instead, she gazed around at the meadows and shady woodland. The caroling of birds in the hedgerows was audible over the steady rumble of wagon wheels and tramp of feet. The lush countryside basked beneath the warm blue sky in peaceful splendour, humming with busy insects and flitting birds. In some fields, placid cattle grazed, their bells clanking as they munched the grass. By contrast, the winding road clogged with human misery made a dismal outlook, and she wondered afresh why these people chose to make such an arduous journey to the sea when they should be planting the season's crops and tending their farms.

Over the next three days, the throngs dwindled until the trio of healers encountered only a few footsore stragglers following the churned, dung-spattered road. Beside it, crops ripened unattended in the fields and ploughs lay abandoned on the brown earth as if the farmer had simply unhitched his team and walked off, leaving the valuable implements to rust. In the empty towns, litter clogged the gutters, collapsed stalls spilt rotting fruit into the roads, and smashed pottery crunched under the cart's wheels. Precious, but useless items lay strewn among the rubbish. Children's toys, cheap baubles and ornaments had apparently been cast aside to lighten the loads that people carried. Clearly this had been an exodus, and Mirra wondered who she would heal if everyone had left, but presumably they would be back, otherwise Elder Mother would not have brought her here. Ravens and crows gathered on the rooftops, raucous spectators to mankind's downfall.

"Why has everyone left in such a hurry, Mother?" Mirra asked.

Ellese shook her head. "You will find out soon."

Tallis' eyes were haunted as she gazed at the empty houses, where dry washing flapped forlornly on the lines. Mirra wondered why this strange exodus was such a secret, especially since Ellese and Tallis both seemed to know what had happened. She found their reticence a trifle vexing, and the situation somewhat disturbing, spoiling her happiness.

When, at last, they arrived at a thatched cottage nestled in a leafy forest glade, it was all that Mirra had ever dreamt of having. It consisted of two rooms and an outhouse, with white-washed stone walls and a freshly-turned vegetable plot at the back. Nearby, a bubbling spring fed a pool surrounded by mossy stones. Ellese inspected it with an air of satisfaction, nodding and smiling.

Mirra enthused over her new home while Ellese unpacked her supplies and Tallis lit a fire, preparing tea. Ellese smiled at Mirra's delight at the simple abode, wishing that this was nothing more than a routine placement. The abbeys took girls with talent and trained them to be healers. A village that needed a healer applied to an abbey, and were usually sent a youngster, whom they undertook to house and feed in return for her services. The lack of a welcoming crowd to greet their new healer was not normal, however, and the desolation of the nearby village boded ill for anyone who stayed here. Usually healers were highly respected, and in no danger of mistreatment, even from the likes of robbers and bandits. The simple white robe and silver necklet marked them, keeping them safe in their solitary abodes.

Not from Bane and his army, however. Already, three abbeys had fallen beneath the his troops' tramping feet, and the healers and their pupils had been slaughtered in terrible ways. The tales of rape, torture and burnings were enough to turn a healer's blood cold. No one in their right mind would willingly settle in the path of that fate. Ellese feared for Mirra, but this was as it had to be. She watched the girl rearranging the few items of furniture, chattering about her first customers, and hoped that she had done the right thing. She whispered a prayer to the goddess, begging her protection for this innocent girl.

That night, at dinner, Mirra put down her spoon and looked at Ellese with an air of determination. "What is it really, Mother? Why have the people left?"

Ellese sighed, knowing that she could prevaricate no longer. She had to offer some explanation, even if it was incomplete. "There is a war, my dear. They flee from an invading army, trying to find safety."

"Oh." Mirra stared at her spoon. "I am to heal soldiers, then."

"You must help any who need it. That is our way."

Mirra nodded and continued to eat her vegetable stew. This she would accept, Ellese knew, for Mirra had been taught that none would harm a healer. The gravity of the situation seemed to sober the girl somewhat, however, and she finished her dinner in silence.

The next morning, the seeress and Tallis left after many hugs and kisses. Mirra smiled and waved in the doorway as the cart rattled away down the road. As soon as they were out of sight, Tallis gave in to the tears that had been threatening all morning and started to sob. Ellese put her arm about her, patting her gently. "She will be all right, Tallis, do not weep. The goddess will protect her."


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