Marcellon Equiville, clad in the flowing red robes of his office, climbed the hill slowly. Behind him, the morning sun set Magnus’ city walls aglow. From the northwest, Marcellon spied the Baranurian army, led by Sir Luthias, Count Connall, pitching their pavilions.
Before him, on the crest of the hill, facing north, was Mon-Taerleor.
The High Mage took a moment to look at his old friend, this man with whom he had once trained. The golden hair had turned white as the snows that muffled Dargon in winter; the once-gentle brown eyes were shrewd and sharp. Mon-Taerleor did not look old, any more than Marcellon himself did, but unlike the Baranurian mage, Mon-Taerleor had grown withering thin. The merry face had turned hawk-like, and the gentle hands which Marcellon had taught healing now looked more like claws.
And from Mon-Taerleor came such a shuddering aura of wickedness that the High Mage himself felt instinctively like withdrawing. Marcellon sensed the aura, strong and solid even at this distance, and his hair stood on edge. He had only felt such evil in one other man, and just as the evil had frightened him in Styles, so it did in Mon-Taerleor. Immediately, Marcellon raised all his mental shields and prepared the magic ones silently.
Still, the High Mage remained composed and impassive. Tucking his hands within the flowing sleeves of his robes, Marcellon greeted the Beinisonian High Mage: “It’s been a long time, Alexander.”
Mon-Taerleor inspected his old companion obviously. “You have not changed.”
The fact that Mon-Taerleor spoke as if they were merely old friends meeting almost amused Marcellon. “You have.”
Mon-Taerleor ignored the remark and its meaning. “Your wife, how is she?”
Marcellon supressed his irritation; he was certain that Mon-Taerleor knew full well how Eliza was. “She died six years ago of the Red Plague. And your wife, Alexander?”
The Beinisonian High Mage cackled. “I killed her.” Mon-Taerleor appeared astonished at Marcellon’s impassive look. “You need not be shocked. It was accidental.”
Marcellon doubted it, and to check, he reached out with his mind to touch Mon-Taerleor’s. As the High Mage suspected, there was a thick wall around Mon-Taerleor’s mind, a magic wall, not a psychic one. Marcellon touched it briefly, assessing it; yes, he could breach it if need be, but it would require energy and effort — and risk.
“You see,” Mon-Taerleor was saying, “I have not changed, but grown in power.”
“You have grown in power,” Marcellon agreed. Twenty years ago, Marcellon had been able to bust Mon-Taerleor’s weak, magic, mental walls with a single, almost casual thought. “You have changed, Alexander.”
Mon-Taerleor laughed. “How is that? I have called you here to make peace.”
“You have called me here to kill me,” Marcellon replied, and his old friend shut his mouth. A smile brushed across Marcellon’s lips. Even through the thick wall, Marcellon read Mon-Taerleor’s strongest emotion as easily as a neat scribe’s book. “I felt it on your letter.”
“And you came,” Mon-Taerleor scoffed contemptuously, and he laughed. “You fool.”
“I am not as much a fool as you think,” Marcellon replied cooly. “I am not unprepared. I know what you are and what you have become, and I am ready to face that.”
The brown eyes of his opponent narrowed angrily. “And tell me, Marcellon, what am I? What have I become?”
The Baranurian High Mage stared at Mon-Taerleor with composure. “Twenty years ago, we vowed to use our power for good, and never to abuse it, for we did not want to become as Styles was.” Marcellon shook his head, and for a moment, he almost felt sad. “You have become Styles.”
“Have I?” A smile slithered onto Mon-Taerleor’s lips.
Anger welled in Marcellon’s heart when he remembered all the evil things that made Mon-Taerleor like Styles. “You have abused your power and your abilities, Alexander. You have used your power for evil, not good, and for harm, not healing.”
“I told you that my wife’s death was an accident,” Mon-Taerleor insisted tightly.
“Indeed?” Marcellon replied icily. With angry precision, the High Mage counted off what he knew of Mon-Taerleor’s evil. “Was your murder of Styles accidental? The execution of the Duke of the Sun for treason he didn’t commit? The earthquake which destroyed the city of Jaliri during the rebellion? What about the outbreak of the Red Plague in Cabildo and Carrerra that killed six thousand four years ago? The raising of the demon Ha’ra’kor, and the experiment that razed the city of Salavencia?” Marcellon’s voice rose with anger and pain as he added the latest crimes. “Was your replica of Luthias Connall’s head accidental? Was his torture? His addiction to magicked ardon?”
Mon-Taerleor’s eyes narrowed angrily; Marcellon felt his displeasure. I know my enemy, the High Mage thought, but he does not know me. I knew he was evil, but he thought me a fool.
I am no fool.
After a long moment, Mon-Taerleor laughed maliciously. “And to think they made him Knight Captain!”
This time, Marcellon smiled completely. “Why not? I cured him.” Despite the seriousness of the situation, Marcellon allowed himself this small bit of satisfaction. Let him absorb that!
The High Mage felt the surprise rock his enemy, but Mon-Taerleor regained equilibrium quickly. “Tell me,” he whispered, his eyes predatory.
“I will not give you that power.” Mon-Taerleor bared his teeth and advanced, as if he could take the information by force. Marcellon held up a staying hand, ready to call forth a magical shield if necessary. “I know what you would do with it. As I said, Alexander, you have changed.”
“And you have not,” the Beinisonian admitted scornfully. “You were fool enough to come. You knew I called you here to kill you, and yet you still came.”
The High Mage smiled again, but the smile was hard and cold. “And what makes you think you will succeed? Try as you have, you have not destroyed Luthias Connall, and he has no magic about him.”
Again, the scornful laugh sounded clearly in the dawn. “I just have not used the right weapon, my friend. It took me quite a while to find it, but I have, and I assure you that by noon this day, you will have lost your Knight Captain of the North.”
Sir Luthias, Count Connall, Knight Captain of the Northern Marche, pounded a stake into the stubborn ground. “All right, let’s raise it,” he ordered, and together, he, Derrio, and Ittosai Michiya lifted the pavilion into shape. Derrio slipped inside to straighten the interior wooden poles.
“I do not know why you do this, Luthias -sama,” Michiya commented, following Luthias around the tent. “You will sleep in Magnus, will you not?”
Luthias grimaced. “As much as I hate to, Michiya, I’m sleeping here. I would be an unjust commander if I didn’t stay with the men.”
“What about Myrande?”
Connall grinned at his wife’s name. “I’m not giving her up, Michiya.”
“I did not think so,” the Bichanese agreed, smiling in return. “But is it — what is that word? — chivalric to make a lady sleep in a tent?”
Sir Luthias shrugged and then laughed loudly and clearly. “Do you think we could keep her away from me?”
Michiya chuckled. “Then there is another problem. Where am I and the squire to sleep, if not in your pavilion that we share? I do not think our presence shall be wanted.”
“You can sleep in the town house in Magnus. It’ll do you good.” The Knight Captain turned to his friend. “Are you hungry? I could use some breakfast.”
“Yes, I am hungry.” Michiya fell in beside his Knight, and they began to walk away from the tent. “Might I have some time to myself to spend in Magnus?”
Luthias considered; then he looked at his friend. “What’s her name?”
“Yes, Fionna. I must find her and take her from the city. It is too dangerous there now for an undefended person.”
“I’ll second that,” Luthias agreed grimly. Well did he know the size and the power of the Beinison army. “I’ll tell you what, Michiya. If we can manage it, we’ll send your Fionna out of the city with Sable.” The Count of Connall frowned. “Although getting her out of the city is going to be a problem, Beinison notwithstanding.”
“Why is that?”
Luthias gave a cock-eyed, cocky smile. “She won’t want to leave me.” He frowned again and ran his hands through his lengthening hair. “I’ve got to get her out, Michiya. There are going to be massive battles here, and I won’t have her risking herself for me.”
“It would be unwise. The children should not be without mother and father.”
Luthias paused at his pack and knelt. As he withdrew the dried beef and the wine skin, he laughed. “Children. That’s right. I keep forgetting I’m a father.” The Count chuckled. “I say it, and still, I can’t believe it.”
“I bet Myrande believes it.”
“It wasn’t very real to me, Michiya,” Luthias confessed. “I didn’t know she was going to have babies. Then I left so soon …” Luthias’ hands dropped, and he looked away. “God, I miss her.”
The Bichanese samurai knelt opposite his lord and took the food. “I do understand, Luthias -sama.” The castellan grinned. “But you will see her today, will you not?”
“I’d better.” The Count gave a wicked smile. “Remember what happened to the last man who kept her away from me.” Luthias’ smile collapsed. “What is it, Michiya?”
The samurai was staring into the distance. “Who is that, I wonder, on the hill? Should we send scouts?”
Immediately alert, Luthias stood, turned, and squinted toward the sunrise. Connall reached into his pack for a spy glass, a gift from the High Mage. A pair of figures in blood red robes became somewhat clear. “It’s Marcellon,” Luthias concluded from the robes, the hair, and the height of one of the men. Luthias’ stomach knotted. Who was the other? “I think something is wrong.”
“Wrong? Why is he here?”
“I don’t know,” Luthias answered, “but I think I’ll find out.” Luthias marched to the tent and donned his sword and helmet.
“I shall go with you,” Michiya decided.
“No, stay here,” the Knight Captain commanded. He faced his aide. “I don’t know who — or what — he’s fighting — or even if he is fighting — but he may need my help. Take care of things, Michiya.”
“Luthias -sama –”
“Don’t worry,” Luthias ordered. “I’ll be right back.”
Frowning, Connall’s aide watched his liege run for the hill outside Magnus. Such parting words worried him. After a moment’s consideration, Michiya grabbed his own helmet and katana and went to seek his brother.
A cold tremor rippled through Marcellon’s heart. “What do you mean? How will Connall soon die?”
“I have sent agents to procure his pretty wife’s death.” Marcellon controlled his face and his fear strictly. “It was easy enough to find her, thanks to the portrait Luthias Connall gave us. When your Knight Captain finds his lady love dead –”
“I think Connall is hardier than you know,” Marcellon interrupted. He hoped so. Marcellon wanted to send out a warning to Myrande, to Luthias, to Sir Edward, but he knew he could not lose his concentration. One slip, and Mon-Taerleor would no longer be boasting of his power; he would be gloating of his conquest.
That is why he ignored the movement behind Mon-Taerleor.
Still, the High Mage could think within himself. If ought were wrong with Lady Sable, Marcellon surely would have heard of it, known of it, by now. The deed was not done — or at least, Luthias didn’t know about it; if it had, Luthias’ pain would have blown through Marcellon’s defenses and rocked the High Mage already. The King surely would have sent a messenger if –
And now Marcellon knew Mon-Taerleor’s intentions, and the High Mage nearly laughed. I am no fool, Alexander, but you are.
“I shall do away with that boy,” Mon-Taerleor claimed as Marcellon returned his thoughts to the immediate, present situation, “and with you. Then Baranur will be easy to destroy, and I will have it!”
“You will have it?” Marcellon questioned, his eyebrow raised in amusement. “What about your Emperor?”
“That beardless babe? Do you think he has any wisdom or power?” Mon-Taerleor grunted. “No, Marcellon, you know better.”
“He has managed to lead the Empire for a year,” Marcellon reminded him. The High Mage strengthened his shield and ignored the helmeted man behind Mon-Taerleor. Hopefully, the idiot would have enough sense to leave the mages to their own combat. This soon would be no battlefield for warriors. “Do not underestimate the young, Alexander. Our Luthias Connall is not that much older than your Emperor, and he has defeated your army.”
“He will soon die,” Mon-Taerleor insisted. “I have seen to it. His soul will expire as soon as his wife’s body is brought.”
“Connall is not dead yet,” Marcellon repeated, “and neither am I.”
“You will be!” And Mon-Taerleor raised his arms and began chanting.
Marcellon quickly uttered the words that added magical shields to his mental ones. His spell blotted out Mon-Taerleor’s words; Marcellon hoped he had chosen the right defenses. He would have no further time to waste on them.
Mon-Taerleor uttered a final, malicious word, and a stream of lightning coalesced on his hands. Marcellon ignored the distraction and, ignoring the danger as well, immediately pushed through Mon-Taerleor’s mental shields with his own.
Unfortunately, the disturbance failed to disrupt Mon-Taerleor’s spell. The magical lightning left Mon-Taerleor’s hands, rocked Marcellon’s magic shell, and ricocheted across the Magnus plain. Two pavilions in Luthias Connall’s armies exploded, and several others enflamed. The voice of the army rose in terror and urgency. Mon-Taerleor’s laugh rang triumphantly across the field.
Marcellon closed his eyes, and Mon-Taerleor’s laugh turned to a furious roar. Marcellon smiled at his success; five spells had, with a single thought, been wiped from Mon-Taerleor’s memory.
“Have you learned no new tricks?” Mon-Taerleor taunted.
“Why should I waste the time, when the old ones work so well?” Marcellon returned calmly.
The Beinisonian High Mage screamed a word in frustration, and a sword of flame materialized in his upraised hand. Crying words of destruction, he hurled it at the High Mage.
Marcellon wasted no time in thinking. He reached out, caught the flame-sword, and flung it back at Mon-Taerleor. The Beinisonian’s arms crossed quickly before his face; the flame sword bounced against an invisible barrier and landed, point first, on the dry ground. The grass began to smoulder.
Mon-Taerleor began to chant ominously; Marcellon recognized the spell and blanched. As the ground began to shake beneath him, Marcellon concentrated until his hands held moon-white power. Shouting, Marcellon flung it toward Mon-Taerleor as he spoke the final word of the summons.
The white force impacted just as the demon began to materialize. Mon-Taeleor and the demon emitted identical protests. Marcellon took the opportunity to push through Mon-Taerleor’s walls again. The Beinison cursed in rage when he lost three more spells, and Marcellon reached for more.
Then Mon-Taerleor spoke again; Marcellon didn’t know the word, but he felt the danger — he had to close his mind’s shields again –
The world went white. All Marcellon’s careful shields — extended to invade Mon-Taerleor’s mind — collapsed like card houses. With no warning, his consciousness shattered.
The blinding pieces of Marcellon’s mind sped around him like a mocking blizzard. But they were all there — all the pieces were there. Dizzy and desperate, the High Mage staggered and fought against the whirling universe. The pieces of his mind, memory, concentration, spells, psychic power, danced in the dark vacuum on the edge of Marcellon’s consciousness. Shutting his eyes and taking a deep breath, Marcellon lunged for a spell, one that would silence Mon-Taerleor — for a little while.
Marcellon snatched the spell desperately and clutched close to his mind as the rest of his thoughts spun around him. Staggering still, Marcellon began to sputter the words. Finding strength in the concentration, the High Mage opened his eyes to a blurry world.
Mon-Taerleor growled, but chanted again. His hands turned a sick, whitish pink.
Suddenly, the Beinisonian spun. Marcellon saw a silver gleam protrude from Mon-Taerleor’s back and jerk toward the collar bone. The High Mage heard Mon-Taerleor’s final curse — a magic word — then the scream of pain.
And then — the pain! The horrible — excruciating — blinding pain!
Frightened, Marcellon stumbled forward, falling onto the burning grass. Clumsy, the High Mage struggled to regain his feet and crawled on the flames when he failed. The earth swayed beneath him; his mind whirled in splinters around him still. And the utter agony — not Marcellon’s agony — filled his shattered mind as the tormented scream filled his ears. He could barely think, but Marcellon knew he had to stop it. Struggling against the shattered pieces of his mind and the other man’s agony, Marcellon continued forward.
The small hill seemed as long as a mountain range, as wide as the unsteady Valenfaer Ocean, but Marcellon crossed it to the sounds of whirling thoughts and tortured men. His eyesight still bleary, Marcellon collided with something solid — something dead.
Mon-Taerleor, with a sword in his chest.
The scream continued, thunderous and agonized. Fighting his ripped mind and the pain that was not his own, Marcellon looked for the source.
In a fetal curl at the feet of the man he slew was Luthias Connall, screaming. “My God!” the High Mage whispered, half-crawling and half-falling toward the younger man.
Marcellon had to help Luthias — he knew he had to help him — but his mind was being tossed in a hurricane wind and things flew by so fast, so fast, and the pain, the pain, *the pain!* He could not think. He must think. Frustrated, Marcellon found enough wits to curse his tattered mind and the man who had rent it.
With nothing else to use, Marcellon scanned Luthias’ body with undependable and blurry eyes. Connall was clean — no blood, no wounds — just the scream, the horrible scream, and nothing causing the pain –
Marcellon frantically searched the fleeing pieces of his mind for something — anything — to stop Luthias’ pain. There was no source — good God, anything could be wrong with him! — and Marcellon snatched one flying spell and, concentrating with a difficulty he had not experienced in thirty years, Marcellon spoke.
Suddenly, Luthias was completely still.
The pain vanished as if it had never existed, but the complete fear which gripped Marcellon only contributed to the wildness of his mind. My God, Marcellon thought, staring with horror at the inert body, I have killed him. I have killed him! *I have killed him!*
Terrified, Marcellon staggered to his feet, and only fell again when he stumbled over the corpse behind him. Head reeling not only from the spell but from the fall, Marcellon rolled sluggishly in his old friend’s blood and tried to regain his feet, his mind.
But Marcellon’s memories whirled incoherently around him still, with spells and fear to drive them. Oh, God, he had killed Luthias Connall!
Where is Luthias -sama? Marcellon thought, and the thought was not his. Neither was the fear of the fire, though the grass sputtered beneath him. The many pictures he could see were not his own memories or his own thoughts. Thoughts were crowding his mind, thoughts not his own, but more coherent than his own mind which screamed with fury and Mon-Taerleor’s laughter.
The world rocked beneath Marcellon, and he fell, vomiting, until the world went black.