In the northern dragon continent rise
mountains too rough, too icy--too dangerous--to be home to
either men or elves. The foothills, however, roll gently;
rivers of sweet water foam down from the peaks; the grass
grows thick and high. In the golden years before Leotra'hh
broke her pact, the best horses in the entire empire came
from the Dragonfire Hills, or so the wise say, and the best
horses of the Hills came from the little town of Cinders.
While the wise have nothing to say about this, any
adventurer would have told you that the best ale in Cinders
came from the Wyvern Wing Inn. Its tavern room was a grand
place in the summer, when the window shutters hung open, and
the scent of growing grass mingled with the smell of
roasting meat. You could see the white-haired mountains
rising in the distance, while closer to hand stretched
meadows where the famous silver-grey horses of the Hills
grazed by the crystal-clear river.
Many an adventurer spent many hour more
than he ever intended in that tavern room, just sitting by
the windows, watching the horses, and putting away a pint or
two of the landlord's sweet brown ale while the sun lay
golden on the grass.
The delver, who tarried the longest,
though, happened to be a wizard, Eladana by name, who
stopped by late one afternoon in early spring, when the
river flowed brown from snow-melt and the shutters were
closed tight to keep out the rain. With her green cape
dripping around her, she slipped into the tavern room so
quietly that it took the landlord a moment to notice her. He
had troubles to brood about, among them a daughter, two
years old that spring, with no mother to watch over her.
Gray--that was his name, you see, because his father was a
man of no imagination--Gray the tavernman was thinking about
his wife, in fact, when he heard someone sneeze behind him.
He turned round fast.
"Well, good morrow, traveler! Can I offer
you ale? Lodging, maybe?"
"Ale, certainly. As for the lodging, I
don't know yet about that."
The customer threw off the cloak in a
scatter of big drops and dumped it onto the nearest plank
table, then tossed her head and shook her hair free in long
damp tendrils that clung to her cheeks and framed her face.
Raven-black was her hair, and raven-black her eyes, but her
skin was as pale as mother-of-pearl, and just touched with
color like that sea-treasure, too, a blush of delicate pink.
"The ale, tavernman."
"My humble apologies. Uh, you know, well,
As he rushed off to fetch her a tankard,
he was telling himself that he was a fool, that no woman so
beautiful would ever have an eye for a lowly tavernman like
him. In that, though, he slighted himself, because Gray was
a good-looking man, tall and as muscled as warrior from all
the hauling and lifting he did in the course of his day:
barrels of ale and loads of firewood, sides of beef and
sacks of turnips and suchlike. Eladana liked the look of him
straightaway, and once the ale was brought and bought, and
he'd fetched himself another to keep her company, they fell
Thanks to the rain and the cold, no one
in Cinders ventured out to the tavern that evening. Eladana
sat by the fire and played with the little
daughter--Redbird, Gray called her, for her coppery
hair--while the tavernman fixed a hot meal for the three of
them and the rain drummed and blustered outside. Since
Eladana had been on the road for many a long year, studying
her wizardry and keeping an eye on strange and evil things
tucked inside the mountains of the empire, the tavern room
with the beautiful child and the handsome tavernman seemed
like paradise to her. Once Redbird was asleep for the night,
Gray poured little glasses of the best brandy, brought all
the way from Khazan itself, for himself and his guest.
"I'm sorry about your wife," Eladana
remarked. "Did she die of an illness?"
"Die? Naught of the sorts. She left me."
"For a swordsman from down Khost way."
He said nothing for so long that she
began to search around for some interesting tale from her
travels, just to lighten the mood.
"I hope an Orc eats his guts," Gray said
abruptly. "For Frogday brunch."
"I can understand how it would take you
He nodded, looked like he was going to
smile, then burst into tears. Eladana put an arm around his
shoulders, just to comfort him, really, wiped his face for
him, too, and then found one thing leading to another, first
a kiss, then an embrace, and then, well, I'm sure all of you
know perfectly well where this sort of thing leads when two
people are alone and lonely by a good fire in a comfortable
At any rate, Eladana told herself the
next morning that she was going to get right back on the
road as soon as it stopped raining, but when the weather
cleared, the sunny view out the long windows was so
pleasant, along with other things, that she stayed a
fortnight, and that fortnight led to another, and another,
until just before Midsummer's Eve she realized that she was
going to have a child. There was no leaving, of course,
until her son was born, two months after Midwinter.
By then, Eladana was beginning to have a
profound sympathy for Gray's wife and her taste for
fascinating adventurers. Gray was an honest man, a fine
father, a hard worker—and as dull as a dragon's tail is
long. He lived for his brewing and cooking, fussed over his
ales, thought of little else, really, but ale and roasts,
unless it was beer and bread-baking. By the time the boy,
Cadvarn, was weaned, Eladana had reached the point where one
more evening listening to Gray talk about malting and yeast
was going to drive her mad. Rather than turn him into a frog
or perform some other wizardly horror on a man whose only
crime was lack of imagination, Eladana gathered up her old
adventuring gear and left. One fine autumn morning she
kissed both children goodbye, promised her man that she'd
return every now and then, and took the west-running road
for Khazan. She wept, on and off, for two entire days, just
from missing the children, but once she was catching up on
the news at the Wizards' Guildhall, she realized that she'd
made the right decision.
It was right for the empire as well as
for her, because, of course, trouble was already beginning
to brew as Leotra'hh got her claws deeper and deeper into
Khara Kang's very soul. Eladana found that the land needed
wizards like her, who used their magicks for the good of all
and who cared for the common people and their sufferings as
much as they did for raw power. Up in the high mountains
many a strange thing needed attending to, and many a dark
trail needed walking and cleansing. Yet at the end of every
winter Eladana came back to Cinders, to visit her son and
the girl she thought of as her adopted daughter, and to
leave Gray a pouch of gold in case they lacked for anything.
Every spring they begged her to stay; every time she was
tempted; yet always she thought of the horrors that monster
kin might unleash upon human kin and returned to her lonely
patrols of the dark that lived under the world.
Finally, though, the dark found Cinders
and touched it. The year that her son turned seven, Eladana
returned to town and tavern to find Gray near-hysterical
with rage and Redbird sobbing in a corner by the hearth.
There was no sign of Cadvarn.
"Gray!" she snapped. "Look at me! What's
happened that's so wrong?"
It seemed that her man came out from
under a spell at the sound of her voice. For a moment he
stared at her, and then shook himself like a wet dog.
"Thanks are to every god and goddess too!
My love, he's taken our boy. The old man, I mean, from the
old tower. Ye gods, my wits! You don't even know what's
happened, do you?"
"I most certainly don't." She felt every
drop of blood in her body turn to ice. "Suppose you tell
Gray gathered Redbird into his lap and
proceeded to do just that. All during her father's recital,
the child sat stone-still, staring at Eladana's face in a
numb and wordless hope that somehow her powerful step-mother
would put everything to rights.
Some miles north, twixt the town and the
mountains, stood an old stone tower, built many long years
before by the horse herders to keep watch against Orcs from
the hills. As the region grew more settled, and raids rarer,
the tower had been abandoned, until the last summer, that
is, when an old man and his retinue suddenly appeared in
Cinders. This Malthorn, as he called himself, stayed in the
Wyvern's Wing for a few days until he could find and bargain
with the original owners of the tower. He seemed wealthy,
this wizard--because there was no doubt that he knew mighty
magicks indeed--and he spread his gold around with a
generous hand, too. Once the tower was bought, he took
himself and his servants off to it, though every now and
then one his bodyguards would come into town to buy ale and
"And then last week old Malthorn himself
shows up," Gray said. "Sat himself down as nice as you
please in my tavern room and nice as you please pulled out
some dice and suggested we have a game. But I knew he was a
wizard, and only a fool gambles with wizards, so I said no.
And he got furious and swore at me, and said if I wouldn't
let him win what he wanted, then he'd take it anyway. He
stormed out of here in a rage, and I was sick over it, I
was. But he never came back, and I thought he'd forgotten or
suchlike, until this morning." His face turned color to
match his name. "Not an hour ago Malthorn and his men came
raging in here. They grabbed our lad, and when I tried to
stop them, it was like I was turned to stone. I couldn't
move, not a step from where I stood, and Redbird fell down
on the floor just from the way the old man looked at her,
and she didn't move till ever so long after he left. And I
stood there like a statue until I heard you at the door, my
love, and then at last I could speak and move again."
Eladana's first reaction was surprise
that she felt no anger at all; then she realized that her
rage burned so hot and fine that it had consumed all petty
things like cursing and the shaking of fists.
"If we call out the town," Gray went on.
"There's the militia."
"And they'd be no good at all against a
man like this, and in considerable danger besides." Eladana
stood up, laying her hands flat on the table. "No, I'm going
alone. This isn't some squalid kidnapping. There's something
this man wants from me, I'll wager, and our Cadvarn's only
"I'll come, at least. By every god, he's
"And you've got a daughter to care for,
too, don't you?"
Gray started to argue, but the child in
his lap looked up at him with eyes brimming tears, and he
relented. He did insist, though, that Eladana take the
finest horse in his stable for her ride north.
The old tower and it had no name but
that, stood on the edge of the foothills. Just where a long
mountain valley, slashed by a rocky stream, spread into a
meadow, the narrow stone needle rose in the midst of a
circling wall. When Eladana rode up, the meadows all round
lay strangely silent. Not a bird sang; not a rabbit rustled
in the shrubby bushes lining the road. Her horse turned
nervous, snorting, tossing his head and rolling his eyes
until she took pity on him. Forcing another living thing
into that keep seemed like a crime. She dismounted, tied the
reins to the saddle-peak, and sent him back home with a slap
on his rump.
She strode alone to the iron-bound gates
in the ring of walls and found them wide open. Just inside
stood two men, wearing mail over tattered clothes and
holding swords at the ready. From the way they slowly swung
their heads round and stared at her without really seeing
her, she could tell that they were ensorcelled.
"My lady Eladana, is it? Come for your
lad, have you?"
As harsh as steel rasping on a shield,
the voice came from the doorway to the tower proper. While
she walked over, picking her way through the puddles of mud
and muck, the figure merely stood in the shadows and
watched, a burly sort, tall, leaning on a double-headed axe.
It wasn't until she drew close that she realized he wasn't
truly human. His skin was an oily dead-white, his hair white
as well, and his eyes a bright pink. His brutish face
betrayed the Orcish blood in his veins. When he laughed at
her, his lips drew back from proper fangs.
"My master's waiting for you. No tricks,
now, or me and my men there will shred you on the spot."
With the Orcish half-breed at the head
and the two swordsmen behind, they entered the tower and a
round room that stank of dead meat and befouled hay. Huddled
at a smoking fire three true Orcs snarled and fought over a
game of dice while, tied to a ring in the wall, a brown and
white goat bleated desperately. Later, no doubt, they would
eat her raw. Right in the middle of this stinking mire stood
an iron staircase, spiraling up.
"Val, Richard, come with me," the
half-breed snarled at the two ensorcelled warriors. "We'll
take our honored visitor up to the master's chambers."
After the stench below Malthorn's chamber
came as a relief, though at any other time she would have
felt sick at heart from its emanation of sheer malice. The
feeling was too petty to be called evil, more spite than
horror, but dangerous all the same. The image that this aura
brought to her mind was that of a nasty child who strangles
its sister's little singing bird just to make her cry:
petty, yes, but deadly. Malthorn's servants had hung the
graceless round room with black cloth, fading rusty near the
windows, and laid the wooden floors with red and yellow
carpets, all worn in the middle. The old man himself sat in
a huge oak chair by the hearth with his feet up on a padded
stool. He was a lean creature, his arms like sticks, his
face a bit of skin stretched like old parchment over his
skull, his lips bloodless as he drew them back from his
toothless mouth to smile at her.
"So, you have come." His voice was a rasp
like dead sticks rubbed together. "I knew you would. The
love of a mother for her child! Touching, is it not?"
"What have you done with my boy?"
“Turned him to stone, actually, but
you'll be able to turn him back again. I have the greatest
respect for you, Eladana, the greatest of all possible
"Is that why you've set wards all through
"Ah, you felt my little traps, did you?
Yes, as long as you stay here, you shan't be able to cast a
single spell, not one. I made quite sure of that. But you
came in anyway, wards and all? Touching, truly, this
maternal devotion. Mark it well, Golo, mark it well. Your
kind has no such nobility."
The slug-white half-breed spat into the
flames. For a brief moment Eladana considered drawing her
throwing dagger and pinning Malthorn dead to his chair back,
but no doubt Golo and the swordsmen would indeed cut her to
shreds, and Cadvarn would stay here forever, a statue worn
down by winds and damp till at last he crumbled away.
"What do you want of me, old man?"
"Your help. Pledge me your aid on a
magical working that I have in hand, and I'll give you back
your son." He leaned back and placed the fingertips of both
hands together like a cage. "You see, I've been working out
this plan for months. I made inquiries of all the guilds
about the wizards who grace the dragon continent. Everyone
agreed you are absolutely the most trustworthy. Once Eladana
gives you her word, they told me, you may consider the thing
done. I'll wager that this absolute honesty is your fate,
your geas, the very heart and soul of your magical power.
It's a common one, after all."
Eladana said nothing, but she was wishing
him dead for his guess. If she should ever lie, her magical
power would weaken, and if she persisted, it would in time
"Oooh, my dear, you've gone all pale
about the lips." He laughed a sort of gurgle deep in his
throat. "Now, since you cannot lie, I have no need of lying,
and so we can bargain. You promise me that you'll help me
achieve what I seek, merely promise me at first, and I shall
release your lad. You can take him back to the town, cure
him, fuss over him, see him all settled and safe, and then
you'll come back to me, and we'll start our work." For
a moment Eladana saw the room lurch and swim, felt her body
turn icy cold, and heard a hissy rush in her ears. Dimly she
was aware of Malthorn crying out, and of a chair, pushed
close at hand. She sat down heavily and caught her breath.
This was no moment for weakness.
"What's wrong?" Malthorn was leaning
close. "Come now, my dear, you can't come over ill on me. I
"If you want me to help you harm so much
as one innocent being, then you might as well kill me and my
son now, because I'd rather we both died than help you work
"What? Oh little frogs and fishes,
nothing of the sort! Look at me, Eladana of the Pure Heart.
I am so old, old beyond even my appearing old. If I told you
how old I am, you'd be shocked, I assure you. Soon, in the
normal course of things, I will die. My magic weakens,
there's no more I can do to stave off this nasty and
inevitable nuisance. Not, that is, by myself." He leaned
closer still, and he smelled dry, like dead grass in autumn,
half-frozen, half-parched. "You are young, your magicks are
still strong. You will help me live, my dear. You will help
me become immortal."
"How can I promise you a thing like that?
No wizard's ever done such a thing, except for Khazan
himself. And who knows if he's truly immortal, or if he
lives only because he sleeps?"
"Ah, but no wizard's ever worked at the
problem as hard as I. The secret's within my grasp. Another
two years, another three--I'll find it, I'm sure of it!"
The thought of that creature living for
all eternity filled her with such loathing that she nearly
refused the bargain. If it had been only her own life at
stake, she would have let the slug Golo slit her throat
before she helped Malthorn inflict himself upon the universe
for one day longer, much less forever, but of course, her
son's life was at stake, too. Malthorn had judged her well.
"It would seem, old man, that I don't
have much choice in the matter."
"None, no." He sounded positively
cheerful about it. "Oh come now! Think of it as an honor.
It's a rare practioner of our art who's had the chance to
work with Malthorn the Mighty. Why, no doubt you'll learn
all sorts of things by working with me."
Eladana did her best to stay calm and
think. After all, he'd made many a quest in dark and
stinking places and found many a thing more horrid than this
conceited little toad of a man. All at once the idea came to
her. Yes, she certainly had seen some strange things deep
under the earth, hadn't she now? If only he were as greedy
for his prize as he seemed to be, and if only she could get
her words exactly right. . .
"But you say there's years of work left.
What if you die before we're done?"
"That thought haunts me." Malthorn
shuddered and clasped his claws of hands together hard.
"That I might be so close and still die! It would be
wretchedly unfair of the universe, wouldn’t it?"
"And just the sort of evil trick the gods
like to play on those of us who study sorcery."
"Exactly. They're jealous, the gods, of
human power and what the human mind can accomplish, if only
there were time enough." Malthorn leaned forward, his face
all earnest indignation. "And I'm sure that they're
particularly jealous of me. With my fine mind, and with all
the secret knowledge I've gathered over the years, why, I
could be the greatest wizard who ever lived if only I had
time enough to finish my studies."
“Um, I see. Well, what if I told you that
there's a way to get your wish right close at hand? What if
I told you that not more than fifty miles away, deep in the
heart of the mountains, lies a means for you to achieve
His eyes glittered and shot greed like
sparks of light.
"Are you strong enough for a quest?" she
went on. "We'll have to ride all the way into the mountains.
There's a ruined silver mine, you see, up in the Dragonfire
Range, and deep within it is a secret chamber that only I
know. Now, once we reach the mine, you'll have to walk for
some miles. Can you do that?"
"I can, indeed, if you promise me. . ."
"Malthorn." She held up one hand flat.
"Believe me, if we reach the chamber I'm talking about, I
can promise you that every bone in your body will become
immortal. Every hair on your head will become immortal.
Every drop of blood in your veins, your veins themselves,
your heart itself, your brain and your eyes and your ears
and your lips and your tongue will become immortal. Every
fleck of your skin, every fiber of muscle, every grain of
toe-nail and fingernail, every--"
"Enough!" His voice rang with a brief
strength. "Do you swear all this?"
"So do I swear."
"And do you swear that you will use all
your magicks and all your strength to bring me safely to
this chamber of which you spoke?"
Eladana cursed him in her heart for his
caution. It would have been so convenient to tip him into a
fissure along the way.
"So do I swear."
Malthorn laughed, tossing his head back,
and then clapped his hands together.
"Golo, bring out the boy." He waited
until the half-breed had slunk out through a door hidden
behind draped cloth. "You know, my dear, you should be proud
of your little son. He knew what I was going to do, but he
stood his ground, glaring at me all the while, never a
whimper or a whine. Someday he'll make a fine wizard, he
"Think so? He's always told me he wants
to own a brewery when he grows up."
Malthorn was as good as his word. Once
Eladana had her son home safe at the tavern, her workings
went so smoothly that it seemed the enchantment lifted
itself. As she finished the last chant of the ceremony, the
hard gray stone throbbed and glimmered, then dissolved into
Cadvarn, who stared at her open-mouthed. When she touched
his face, he began to laugh and cry at the same time. She
folded him into her arms and wept with him.
"Mama, Mama, I knew you'd save me! I just
knew it. Is that awful old man dead yet?"
"No, my sweet, I'm afraid he's not. I had
to promise not to hurt him, you see, so he'd let you go."
"You shouldn't have. I wouldn't have
minded dying to get rid of him. Well, I wouldn't have minded
a whole lot, anyway."
"I would have minded a great big whole
lot. And I'm the mother in this family. Remember?"
He clung to her so tightly that she could
feel his terror, seeping from his bones like frost.
On a bright day that smelled of summer
coming, Eladana met her unwanted associate on the road some
miles out of town. He traveled in style, did Malthorn, on a
beautiful bay horse with silver-trimmed gear. Right behind
him rode his bodyguard of Golo, the three Orcs, and his two
ensorcled swordsmen, plus two pack horses and peasants to
"Give that pack to a servant to carry,
Eladana." Malthorn smiled his bloodless grin. You have no
"Oh, I'd rather walk."
With her walking and him riding,
conversation would be difficult, you see, especially since
it took all his strength and attention just to cling to the
saddle as they made their way over the rough and winding
roads. Yet that night, once the servants had a good fire
going and food handed out all round, Malthorn insisted she
come sit next to him for a "chat," as he called it.
"Now, I've been very forbearing so far,"
"When your son was still ensorcled, I
knew you'd have no mind for a long talk. That's the kind of
man I am, deep down, always thinking of others. But now I
want to know just what this marvelous chamber is that you've
Eladana felt herself grow very calm. The
greatest battle of her life had begun. She glanced round to
find Golo sitting nearby, all ears, then turned back to
Malthorn. "Very well," she said. "The silver mine I told you
about? It prospered for many a year, until one day the
miners broke through a wall and found a natural cavern where
an underground river ran through. And on the other side of
that, they found these artificial tunnels so old they must
have been built during the Wizard Wars."
"By great magicks, indeed." Malthorn's
eyes gleamed, fevered in the firelight. "Did they explore
"A little ways, till three of them got
eaten by a creature living in the river. At that point they
closed down the mine. Some years later, I heard the story
and went to investigate. It was obvious that some mighty
personage from the days of the Wizard Wars had carved
himself out a refuge under the mountain. I won't go into
detail now. Doubtless you'll spend much time there once
you've achieved your goal, but the remnants of powerful
magic lay everywhere."
"And soon they will be mine, yes. Go on."
"Not far from the river I found a huge
chamber with wards of enormous power guarding the door. It
took all my strength to blast them aside. Inside I found a
being." Here was the crux, and she hesitated, looking away,
thinking hard. "I never got a good look at him or her or it.
It appeared as a blazing pillar of light, blinding me. And
it spoke in a tongue so old and archaic that it was hard to
understand. It had been trapped there, you see, during the
wars, by one of its enemies." So far all this was the
literal truth. "But as far as I could understand, and I
spent many hours there, deciphering what it said, it
promised, it swore, that the first person through the
chamber door would achieve the immortality of which I told
you on the day we first met, the one to which I've promised
to deliver you."
"I see." Malthorn laughed, a dry rusty
mutter. "And no doubt in return it will demand to be set
free. Hum, well, we'll see about that! But why didn't you go
through the door?"
"I had my children to think about." She
could only hope that conditional sentences might be counted
as, if not truths, then at least as a category beyond truth
and lies by whomever or whatever it was that held wizards to
their geas. "I ask you, Malthorn, if I were immortal, would
I be able to be a good mother to my children? An immortal
being couldn't even begin to understand the needs and fears
of a child, or so I'd think. Later, once they were grown, I
might have gone back and taken up the being's challenge, but
now, of course, you shall have the first walk through that
"A touching sacrifice for the little
ones, my dear, postively touching. Well, once I'm immortal,
perhaps I'll set about making you immortal, too, if you
choose to serve me, of course." All at once he yawned. "Ah,
how weary I am tonight. I haven't ridden so far in a single
day for a very long time. I'd best get some sleep and save
my strength for the mines."
For the rest of the journey, as Malthorn
grew more and more exhausted, Eladana managed to avoid any
more of these intimate talks. As they climbed higher and
higher into the dark peaks of the Dragonfire range, the
horses could go at no more than a slow and measured walk.
When Golo threatened to lay whip and spur upon them to speed
them along, Eladana pointed out to the half-breed's master
that draining the horses' strength now would mean a slow
walk downhill at the end of their quest.
"Provided, of course, we live to see the
sun again, anyway, which is doubtful."
"Come now, my dear, with my might joined
to yours. . ."
"It's a dangerous road we'll walk in
there. Overconfidence will kill us."
He considered, nodding his head a little.
"Well, right you are. We might need those
horses to ride out in a hurry, like, if something's chasing
Once they reached the mines, everyone
agreed that the horses would have to stay behind. Twisted
switchbacks, hacked from the living rock of a sheer cliff,
led up to the entrance into the tunnels. Like a sneering
mouth it gaped, its huge timbers cracked, canted,
threatening collapse at any moment. Down below, at the foot
of the cliff, they found a roughly-cleared meadow with the
remains of a fence and a water-trough.
"This must have been a paddock for the
mine's mules," Eladana said. "I suggest we leave the horses
here with the servants to watch them. If we just turn them
loose, they'll wander off, or some creature might eat them,
for that matter."
Malthorn considered, looking up at the
sharp peaks, black with pines, streaked with the dark gray
of rock cropping out from the thin soil. Even in the sunny
afternoon the wind was cold as it whistled down from the
"Very well," he said at last. "I shall
bind them to stay with curses upon the names of three
different demons, the servants, that is. I suppose they have
more wit than the horses, anyway." He laughed at his own
joke, and Golo, of course, echoed him.
That evening, though, once Malthorn and
Golo were sound asleep, Eladana slipped away from camp and
joined the servants at their tiny fire.
"As soon as we're well down in the
mines," she said. "Run for your lives. I'll stand as
surrogate for the demons myself, but to tell you the truth,
I'm not much worried about them."
White-faced and stammering, the three men
thanked her and blessed her name for good measure.
Since the silver mines had only been
abandoned some twenty years earlier, the tunnels were still
in good condition, and their trip through them uneventful at
first. Being so near to his goal seemed to give Malthorn a
brief return of youth; he strode along, humming under his
breath snatches of a drinking song that Eladana had often
heard in the various taverns where adventurers gathered of
an evening. From his throat it sounded repulsive. Golo and
the orcs scurried after him, and at the very rear the two
ensorceled swordsmen plodded, heads down like mules. After
a long morning's trek, they reached a pit, some twenty feet
across, where at one time a ramp sloped down to the lowest
level of the mine itself. Now the entire side of the shaft
lay collapsed and strewn on the floor far below, a spread of
rocks and rubble.
"There's a narrow strip left, off there
to the side," Malthorn said. "Not very safe looking,
"We might be able to get down this way."
Golo stepped forward and peered, holding up his lantern. "If
we went one at a time."
"It'd be fairly safe, coming up." Eladana
said this loudly enough for the orcs and the swordsmen to
hear. "Safer than going down. I blasted this out, you see,
so I know the damage pretty well. Something was chasing me
as I was trying to leave, and all this sudden rubble slow
them down good and proper."
"We'll have to use magicks," Malthorn
snapped. "We can fly our men down one at a time, then
follow. I'm not risking an accident now, when we're so
"Er, yes," Golo said. "Uh, what was
"Well, to tell you the truth, I really
don't think you want to know."
By the time they had the men, orcs, and
all their gear down safely to the foul-smelling mine tunnel
below, the two wizards were exhausted, but Malthorn insisted
that they push on. As they picked their way between brackish
pools of water and stones slick with blue and phosphorescent
slime, he needed to lean heavily on Golo and measure every
step he took. If the maze of rough corridors and branching
tunnels hadn't all sloped steadily down, doubtless he
couldn't have managed more than a couple of hundred yards,
but as it was, the party was a good mile from the shaft
before he gasped out the order to halt. Eladana found them a
place to camp, a big half-circular hollow of a room, which
once had stored wheelbarrows and the tiny, two-wheeled
ore-carts common in that part of the country.
"Look at the floor," she remarked to the
orcs. "You can see the ruts worn right into the stone. They
say that thousands of orcish slaves lived and died their
whole life here until the mine was forced to close. The
locals tells stories about their ghosts, wandering and
wailing through the tunnels, crying out for revenge on every
living thing they meet." She paused for effect. "Now, I
don't believe those stories, myself, but you certainly hear
a lot of them."
"Not afraid of ghosts, none of us!" one
Orc spat out, and his fellows all chimed in to agree. None
of them sounded convincing.
After a scant meal, Malthorn ordered the
orcs to take turns standing guard, then rolled himself up in
his blankets and fell asleep, a deep, bone-weary slumber
that, it seemed, nothing could break. Golo made himself a
bed out of cloaks and so on, but he announced that he was
going to sleep with more than half an ear open. Either he
was more tired than he thought, or the orcs were better at
moving quietly than they looked, because in the morning the
guards were gone and half the food with them. Malthorn and
Golo swore and raged and promised to invoke every demon in
hell to seek the defectors out even unto the ends of the
earth while Eladana did her best to look stricken.
"It matters not," Malthorn said at last.
"Once I'm immortal, there'll be all the time in the world to
deal with the likes of them. Eladana, how far are we?"
"Not far, but the worst part lies ahead.
We've got to cross the river."
Eeriely silent, the river flowed as
smooth as glass at the bottom of a gorge. Some forty feet
wide, it exhaled an icy cold, not easy swimming, especially
for burdened men and an ancient wizard. Not a knob or spire
or jag protuded on which to fasten a rope, either.
"Some rather ghastly creatures live in
there," Eladana remarked. "Or, to be perfectly honest, they
did the last time I was here, anyway. I think they must be
some of those hybrid horrors you hear about from the Wizard
Wars. When I was flying over it, tentacles came snaking out
of the water and nearly got me. As thick as a man's leg,
they were, and covered with blood- red suckers like little
Everyone shuddered, especially Golo.
"Well, we'll have to take to the air
again," Malthorn said. "I hate to do it. Yesterday, getting
everyone down that shaft seemed to sap every bit of life out
of me, but I don't see any way around it. Once we're across,
how much farther is it to the chamber?"
"Some miles. If you're exhausted, we
really should rest for a good long time before--"
"No! I've worked and hoped and studied
and sweated for this day, and cursed if I want to wait! It's
close, so close. I can feel Destiny like a wind, my dear,
blowing me onward."
"Indeed? Well, you know, once I crossed
this river I didn't meet any more evil creatures. On the
other side everything was dead, all scoured away, like, and
there wasn't a scrap of moss or drop of water for any beast
to eat or drink. The ancient magic must have made the
caverns unfit to bear life for ever. Why not leave those two
ensorcled warriors behind? Bind them with demon- fear like
you did the servants. If we only take ourselves, Golo, and a
little food and water across, you'll have the strength left
to push on."
Malthorn turned and studied the pair,
standing half-sprawled against the tunnel wall, eyes glazed,
mouths slack. She could guess the spells he'd used to chain
their very souls, a working that would make them less than
beasts until something should attack, when they would go
berserk and fight till the danger passed.
"There's no need even for the
demon-binding," Malthorn said at last. "How long till we
"Well, I could walk there and back in six
"I'll be a bit slower going, but I should
be speedier coming back. Very well, then. The spell won't
need renewing for at least a day." Malthorn waved his hand
at the pair. "Sit. Stay."
Obediently they slumped and squatted down
like half-filled sacks of grain. While Malthorn stood at the
river bank--though a safe way back from the water--and
contemplated his destiny lying on the other side, Golo went
through the packs, making up small bundles of food and
waterskins for him and Eladana to carry. She made a great
pretence of going through her own pack, taking out extra
food, fussing over various things, until Golo finished and
walked away to join his master. She carelessly let a tin cup
fall and roll, rattling, over to the two swordsmen. Neither
looked up as she bustled over to fetch it.
"You will neither move nor speak till
we're across the river," she whispered. "Not one word till
In their soul-bound state, her orders cut
into their minds like a dagger thrust. When, with a few
quick murmurs and a gesture of cramped fingers, she lifted
the ensorcelment, they stayed completly inert, without so
much as a twitch of their lips, but in their eyes she saw
life and thought dawn. Slipping the cup into a pocket, she
hurried over to the waiting Malthorn.
"Shall I send Golo across with my magic?"
"No!" Golo squeaked. "I'm not going
first. I'm not I'm not. I don't want tentacles grabbing at
"Shut up, you stupid idiot!" Malthorn
made a weak slap in his direction. "If something happened to
Eladana, I'd never find the chamber, would I now? Think, you
fool!" He turned to Eladana. "My dear, I see you're mindful
of your promises indeed. By all means, if you'd sail him
With a thrust of her mind she summoned
force and grabbed the squalling Golo as if she were wielding
invisible tongs. Up and up and she lifted him, so high above
the river he nearly scraped his head on the cavern roof
above, then slung himself across. For a moment he dangled at
a canted angle over the rocky bank on the far side. Malthorn
laughed; Golo screamed; Eladana dumped him unceremoniously
down among his bags and sacks.
"Shall we, my dear?" Malthorn raised
himelf into the air.
Together they floated up, then glided
over the river. About halfway across Eladana looked down and
saw a sleek dark shape, twice as large as a horse, gliding
fast beneath them.
"Hurry!" she screamed.
They swooped down to the safety of the
bank just as the creature struck, breaking water like a
trout--but no natural fish was this. She had only an
impression of a black mouth, bladed with fangs, before the
creature dived back into a churn of white water. The spray
arched up some twenty feet into the air and splashed over
them with a sulphurous smell. Golo was shrieking, Malthorn
was gibbering and clutching his chest. Simply because she'd
promised to keep him safe, Eladana grabbed him and dragged
him back from the edge of the gorge. Golo followed, still
"I must rest," Malthorn gasped. "Must."
They helped him sit, then made him a
little bed of their cloaks. While Golo scrabbled through his
bags and sacks to find a restoring potion, Eladana wandered
back to the river bank. Across on the far side, the
swordsmen were gone. After a vial of some sweet-smelling
herbal brew and a few minutes rest, Malthorn insisted that
he could walk with Golo's support. Just as Eladana had
hoped, he was so exhausted that he could barely think, much
less ask any awkward questions about their destination. She
led the way while the pair of them limped after, down long
corridors graved with strange symbols and words in a
long-forgotten tongue, past rotting wooden doors or stone
statues that seemed to look at them with living eyes. Golo
began to whine, saying that his shoulders were aching, that
his feet hurt and his back was cramping under his master's
weight; Malthorn muttered and swore at him under his breath.
Just as they reached the final turning, Eladana had one last
stab of doubt. Whether or not she had ever outright lied to
them, she was playing a vast and malicious trick on the
pair, suffering and sentient beings like all humankin and
monsterkin, driven by nothing more than the fear of death
that drives most souls. She hesitated, letting them catch
up, and wavered on the edge of revealing herself.
"Once I'm immortal," Malthorn was saying
to the half-breed. "You'll have your reward. Remember what I
promised you? In a few years nothing will be able stop the
power of my magic, not Leotra'hh herself, not Khazan, even
if the stupid fool managed to wake up before we destroy him.
Ah, there you are, my dear. You too will be rewarded for
this, you know. Why, your son shall have every brewery in
the northlands if you'd like."
"One will no doubt be plenty, thank
you. Are you ready, Malthorn? The door lies there." And
with a sweep of her arm, she steered him down the corridor.
Rough stone walls, a dusty stone floor,
all carved from the living rock unimaginably long before—an
unprepossessing little tunnel, leading up to a jagged
opening into darkness. Malthorn peered down and frowned
"You said the being was a pillar of
light. Has it fled?"
"The dark's an illusion. That's what
serves as a door."
Malthorn laughed and shook his head.
"Sorry, my dear. I am just so tired. Very
well, let us dispel it."
As she gathered her strength for the
working, Eladana said in her mind a silent farewell to the
two children and the tavernman who would wait in vain for
her to come home. Not once in this journey had she ever
considered that she would survive reaching its goal. Beside
her Malthorn raised his arms in the air.
"Now!" he snapped.
When they flung their hands forward, the
magical energy swept out, flew toward the door, and hit with
a roar of sound, a flood of silver-blue light made as
palpable as a spear. Half-blinded by the glare, Eladana fell
to her knees, but Malthorn rushed forward where the last
pieces of magical darkness fluttered away like torn cloth.
Shrieking Golo shoved her aside and rushed after him just as
a spray of light burst from the chamber.
"Me first!" Golo screamed. "Out of my
way, old man!"
"Never!" Malthorn grabbed, caught,
clutched him and fell with him to the ground.
They writhed, rolled, flopping like
landed fish, wrestling ever closer to the yawning door where
golden light poured out. The air screamed with them as the
very stone trembled and pitched. Eladana staggered to her
knees, fell again, hauled herself up and began struggling
backwards, away from the hungry howl that filled the tunnel.
Locked together Malthorn and Golo rolled the last few feet.
Streamers of light like hands grabbed and dragged them while
their shrieks of fear and agony mingled with the roaring of
the ravenous being that drew them within. Eladana had spoken
nothing but the truth when she'd said that she knew not what
it might be. What she did know was this: although it was
immortal, it hungered. On the day that she'd discovered it,
trapped in its cavern, it had cried and threatened and
begged for food, for flesh to suck dry, for living beings to
absorb into its own immortal substance, for blood to drink
and bones to crush and swallow until every drop of blood,
every vein, the heart itself, every bone, every fiber of
muscle, every tiny scrap of the prey became itself for ever,
as immortal indeed as the beast that had devoured it was
Under her the ground pitched and rocked.
Fed, the creature grew strong and threw itself against its
prison. Praying to every god, Eladana ran down the corridor.
She had no choice but run; she would have to save the last
pitiful remnant of her magic for the river. She fell,
dragged herself up, ran out into the main tunnel, fell
again, managed to regain her feet just as the ceiling of the
side tunnel behind her collapsed. The creature's maddened
howl threw her onward in a spray of rock chips and dust.
Still trapped, it raged and destroyed the more.
Half staggering, half running Eladana
drove herself onward. Behind her walls burst, stone ceilings
fell, tons of dirt and earth plunged like water to fill the
voids of wizards' work. She could feel herself gasping for
breath in air turned thick, feel her back and legs bleeding,
too, from the constant waves of shattered rock that nipped
her. All at once the ground bucked up beneath her feet. She
fell, slid, rolling over and over down, always down as the
long approach to the riverbank crumbled under her with a
groan and spew of dying earth. Magic was her only hope. With
a spasm of mind, she forced herself to concentrate as she
began to tumble in that avalanche of rock. She flung herself
into the air, hovered rather than flew as tons of debris
poured down below her and blocked the gorge. How long she
hung there above certain death she would never know. As the
roaring stopped and dust began to rise in smoking plumes,
she found herself falling beyond her power to save herself.
She hit the spread of rubble hard, breathless, bleeding,
stabbed with pain in every rib and sinew, and lay helpless
as the river roared an answer to the earth and began to rise
behind this sudden dam.
Drowning, she supposed, would be a kinder
fate, less painful than being crushed under rock, and she
had the last muddled hope that her body would wash up where
it could be found, so that Gray and the children would know
that she was dead and could put her memory behind her. It
seemed, in fact, that she heard Gray calling her name,
screaming her name, then realized that the voices--there
were two of them, suddenly--belonged to strangers. As the
voices mingled with the gurgle and churn of the rising
water, through the drifting dust shapes appeared, hands,
faces leaning over, hands grabbing her: Val and Rikard, the
swordsmen she'd set free. She could barely gibber out their
"Do you think we'd desert you? Did you
think we'd run away when there was the least chance you
When they grabbed her to lift her up, the
pain seared through her body. She fainted in their arms.
Eladana woke to pain, but to sunlight as
well, and the feel of someone wiping her face with a wet
rag, and the taste of fresh water being trickled into her
lips. When at length it occurred to her to open her eyes,
she saw, hovering close about hers, the face of one of
Malthorn's erstwhile servants
"You didn't go." Her voice was a cracked
and aching whisper.
"Not while there was a chance you'd come
out and need us," the man said, grinning. "Figured you'd get
the best of that slime. Now just rest. Val's gone galloping
for a healer."
It was a long time before Eladana could
talk about what had happened inside the mountain, not until
she was well and truly healed, and sitting in Gray's warm
tavern room with friends around her, a fire glowing in the
hearth, the children at either side of her, and a tankard of
good brown ale at hand. As well as the men she'd rescued,
half of Cinders, it seemed, crowded in to hear her tale.
When she finished, no one spoke for a long time, merely sat
thinking, or looking out into space with a shudder for the
horror of it all. Finally Cadvarn tugged on her sleeve.
"But Mama, you did lie, didn't you? I
mean, all those bits of him are immortal, but he's not."
"The only thing he made me take an oath
about were the bits, my sweet. And so it wasn't as if I
lied. When I was making him that list of bits, I just left
out one small detail."
"What? What didn't you put on the list?"
Eladana smiled in a gentle sort of way.