Chaos reigned in Dargon. It began with a barge crashing into and nearly destroying the causeway that connected the old city with the new. More people had gathered on the causeway that day than in decades, all to watch members of the town guard recover a one-armed body from the river. Speculation, and betting, had been high that the body was that of Duke Clifton Dargon. The duke had lost an arm several years earlier defending the city and had not been seen in Dargon for over a sennight. Many of the people on the causeway during the crash had fallen into the Coldwell, where some had been crushed by falling debris or drowned.
The misfortune was not limited to the causeway. People slipped down stairs, spilled wine on important documents, and dropped valuables down their privies. At the docks, a longshoreman named Radis helped a pair of sailors load four crates of silk from far Bichu onto a cart. Hitched to the cart was Radis’ most reliable team: a pair of mules named Surefoot and Steady. As the longshoreman led his mules down the gangplank, Surefoot stumbled, causing Steady to panic. The cart, mules and all, went over the side, dragging Radis along. He was knocked senseless by a kick to the head from Surefoot as the mule struggled to free herself from the cart. The sailors watched in dismay as a fortune in silk was ruined by seawater.
A small tremor — so small that one might have taken it for a large cart rumbling by — shook the city as the ground below shifted. Jamis, part owner of an establishment called the Shattered Spear, glanced up from cleaning behind the bar at the sound of tinkling glass. A set of four wine glasses — actual glass, and worth a month’s profit, purchased for wealthy patrons who never visited — rattled together on a nearby table where he had set them after dusting them. Jamis watched in horror as the table, which had withstood the impact of many drunken brawls, collapsed. The glasses were dumped onto the only spot on the floor not covered in sawdust, where they shattered.
In a magically sealed cave below Dargon, the city’s misfortune continued. The tremor that had merely shaken the table in the Shattered Spear caused debris on the cave floor to jump about. A cup that had been cast into the cave years before landed on its base and stayed there as the cave continued to shake. All the loose stones hopped about during the tremor, but only one stone landed in the cup. It was the only stone that mattered. A crystal decanter that had, for no good reason, been placed on a high shelf of rock when it had been hidden in the cave fell to the floor and shattered. A splash of the water that had been stored in the decanter for many centuries landed in the cup and covered the stone. The evil that was befalling Dargon above could not compare to what was about to be released in the depths below the city.
Body, mind, and spirit reassembled at last, the Margre Chalisento stood. Trying to still the ache in her head and the trembling in her knees, she surveyed her surroundings. She was in a small cave formed centuries earlier by the flow of water. The cave was completely lightless, but that presented no challenge to one with her abilities. A single natural column of stone dominated the chamber. Stalactites descended from the ceiling and crystal growths dotted the walls. At her feet, in a bowl-shaped depression, were a cup and the shattered remains of a decanter. Across the cave, below a sealed entrance in the ceiling, lay a desiccated corpse. She wondered whose body it was. Chalisento shivered, recalling her imprisonment, remembering the crushing weight of stone.
“Quickly! We must act quickly!”
Chalisento sensed, rather than heard, the familiar voice. She was beyond hearing. Her skull had been crushed, along with her body, by an enormous block of granite. The stone hung suspended, barely two fingerspans above the floor of her great hall, through the force of her will. She clung to life by the same power. She knew that she could restore her body and reduce the granite slab to pebbles, but only if she could focus through the agony.
The voice, a gravelly bass, spoke again. “Hurry, get into position!”
This time she recognized the speaker: a trusted ally and the closest thing she had to a friend. She thought he might be trying to rescue her. She had to let him know that she lived. She concentrated, pushing past the agony, to speak his name, not with her lips but with a breath of wind. “Baltar.”
That one word cost her dearly. The granite block descended a few hairbreadths and fresh agony coursed through her ruined body. She almost missed Baltar’s next words.
“She is aware! There is no time!” There was no joy in those words, only fear. “Areana! Talus! Mendregar! Take your places. If she frees herself, all is lost.”
‘If she frees herself?’ No accident then, this block of granite, but a trap. It was a clever trap, too. She had long ago guarded herself against almost every form of magic. But a massive block of stone dropped from a great height? There was no magic in that. It could not kill her, not one with her power, but it could distract her for a time. Chalisento wondered what her four former allies planned to do with their remaining moments on Makdiar.
“Let us begin.” Baltar’s voice reverberated in the vast chamber.
Chalisento found focus in her newly discovered hatred of Baltar. He had always been dramatic, a seeker after glory. She was certain that whatever plans these four had made included a prominent position for Baltar. Thinking of the torment she would inflict upon that arrogant ass helped Chalisento focus beyond her own pain. The crushing weight of the rock eased.
Then Talus spoke. His voice was soft and melodic, in contrast to Baltar’ deep rumble. “I invoke the power of the air. May the wind strip the flesh from the bones of the Margre Chalisento.”
As wind began to blow through the tiny space between granite block and floor, Chalisento panicked for the first time. It was possible that these four could destroy her with the right combination of elemental sorcery. She had no time to wonder about how they had uncovered this vulnerability. She forced her mind to stay calm through the agony and fear, hoping for an opportunity to strike.
Baltar spoke again. “I invoke earth. May the stone grind to powder the bones of the Margre Chalisento.”
Chalisento’s contempt for Baltar deepened. Such laziness! The stone was already doing his work for him. He would not need to expend a bit of his own power. What would be next: fire or water? And who would invoke it? Mendregar, ever the showman, loved the spectacle of fire, but Areana was a true master of the flame. Chalisento suspected that Mendregar’s ego would have won out. She prepared herself.
When the arrogant young magus called out, Chalisento’s disembodied voice started a half a heartbeat behind. They finished in unison. “I invoke fire.”
Chalisento felt the energy that Mendregar had summoned. She willed it to turn back against him. “May the flames burn to ash Mendregar of Varum!”
Mendregar’s death scream was cut short as his own power consumed him. The other mages cried out as one. The wind stopped, but Chalisento felt unbearable torment as the granite block moved closer to the floor. She had been forced to release her control of the rock in order to destroy Mendregar. Still, she was pleased. Without a fourth magus, they could not hope to destroy her with the elements, and the stone slab would not keep her contained forever.
She could sense her three former allies conferring in hushed tones. Through her torment, she perceived fragments of sentences.
“… what other choice …?”
“… not kill …”
“… hidden away …”
Then Areana’s voice sounded clearly. “I call forth the mind!” Baltar and Talus quickly followed, calling upon body and spirit. Chalisento felt herself pulled apart, as the essence of her being was separated into three principle parts, and bound into a chalice, a stone, and water in a crystal decanter. The last sound she sensed was the slab of granite, crashing to the floor at last.
Chalisento gazed down upon the objects that had been her prison. A shudder passed through her body and she realized that she was trembling with cold. She called upon the tiniest fraction of her power; a thick woolen robe appeared and draped itself over her naked shoulders.
Free. She was free. She smiled without humor, beginning to plan the torments she would visit upon her former companions. Then her gaze fell upon the corpse that lay near the sealed entrance of the cave. How long had she been trapped? From the appearance of the body, she concluded that it had been in the cave for several years. Chalisento stepped forward, still shivering, and rolled the corpse onto its back.
A crossbow bolt stood out from the man’s chest, clearly indicating how he had died. But who …? She looked closely at the remains of the man’s face, gray skin stretched tight over bone. A knot of whiter tissue stood out above the left eye socket. Chalisento’s finger traced her left eyebrow, which was split by a similar scar. Then a name came to her: Flane. With the name came a dozen others, people who had, through the centuries, encountered one of the objects of her imprisonment. Although her power and awareness had been limited, she had been able to force each in turn to seek out the other objects, which had been scattered to the distant reaches of Makdiar, so that she might regain her freedom.
Centuries? Yes, it had been that long. She remembered listening to Baltar’s whispered apologies, as he had transported the stone that had held her mind. He had claimed that he and the others had chosen to betray her out of fear, because she had become too powerful, and her power had made her unpredictable. He had begged her forgiveness even as he had hidden her away to face ages of tedium.
The stone had been the first to be discovered. Chalisento suspected that was because Baltar had been a braggart. She was certain that it had been he who had woven clues concerning her imprisonment into songs and myths. She had possessed each owner of the stone in turn, driving them to seek the other relics. She had been thwarted for many years by a curse that fell upon whoever possessed one of the objects of her imprisonment. Chalisento saw the hand of Talus in that. He had always been clever.
The holders of the stone had all died violently. On occasion, someone would pick up the stone immediately after the holder’s death, allowing her to continue her quest for freedom. At other times, it had lain idle for decades before another person picked it up. Eventually, a man named Voesh had recovered the chalice as well, and the ring that would unlock the magical seal of the cave that held the decanter. After Voesh fell to the same curse, his former ally, a man named Shan, had recovered the items, but he had then been slain in a battle that did not concern him.
Flane, a member of the losing side of the battle, had found the artifacts and fled with them as the battle raged. He had not known the nature of the items, but had taken them because Shan — or Chalisento within the mind of Shan — had considered them valuable. She had possessed his mind as well, and Flane had continued the journey that Voesh had begun. Indeed, he had almost completed it, but had instead been slain at the entrance to the cave in which Chalisento now stood.
She remembered her impatience as she waited for low tide, and then her elation as she had, with Flane’s hands, dug away the sand that covered the hidden door to her prison and had broken the seal. Her joy had quickly changed to fury as a crossbow bolt had pierced Flane’s heart. A bard named Nakaz had learned of the quest and tracked Flane down. She had touched the bard’s mind when he had picked up the objects of her imprisonment but had been unable to possess him. It had been as if she had faced the strength of a hundred minds, as if the bard had been a hundred men and women. Nakaz had cast the stone, chalice, and ring into the cave and sealed it again, hoping to prevent her from ever rising. But now that she had risen, she would have to find the foolish bard and replace his hope with agony.
Chalisento pulled her robe tighter. Why could she not get warm? In irritation, she splayed her fingers, closed her eyes, and focused her power. The bowl-shaped depression in the floor filled with green-tinged witchfire. She smiled as she watched the chalice that had held her body for centuries melt into a puddle. Chalisento stepped into the fire. As her robe burned away, she felt the flames surround her naked form, savoring the warmth. The witchfire, hotter than any normal flame, could do her no harm. Her long hair, unbound, swirled about her head. The heat of the fire continued to grow.
Warm at last, Chalisento’s thoughts turned to revenge. She sent her awareness skyward in search of knowledge, while her body stood bathed in emerald flames. Looking down from above, she beheld a small city. The minds of the inhabitants shone like stars before her. She sensed something else, as well, something powerful and consumed by anger. It was not a mind, though, and its nature eluded her. She needed to know more about the world outside her prison to know if the anger’s source was a threat to her, so she turned her attention back to the city’s inhabitants. Seeking the brightest light, she descended toward it, encircled it, and entered.
As she slipped into the man’s mind, she looked out through his eyes and beheld a study, filled with tomes bound in leather. The man whose mind she had entered was seated at a table with a scroll, inkpot, and sand laid out in front of him and a quill clutched in his hand. He slumped into his chair as Chalisento took possession of him. She skimmed his thoughts, as if leafing through a book, and learned that his name was Corambis the Sage. He was not just intelligent, then, but learned. In the cave below the city, Chalisento’s lips curled into a smile.
She dug deeper into his memory. Corambis’ body began to twitch, but she ignored it. He knew about her, had even discussed her legend with someone: Nakaz! At the discovery of the bard in Corambis’ memory, Chalisento drove even deeper, seeking knowledge of Nakaz’s location. As she did, the sage’s twitching grew. A violent spasm rocked the table, spilling the ink; the quill snapped in his clutching fingers. She found nothing. Corambis had not seen the man for five years.
Chalisento relented in her furious search, aware that her efforts might kill her host. She did not do this out of concern for him; he had earned a horrible death for helping Nakaz keep her imprisoned. She needed him alive to learn about those who had imprisoned her.
More gently, she paged through the sage’s memory, seeking first for information on her former allies. Corambis knew nothing of them. This was a blow to her, but not a surprise. None of them had possessed the power to remain alive for the long centuries she had been imprisoned. She was pleased to discover that their legends had not survived as long as hers.
Another possibility entered her mind. Perhaps Baltar and the others had been forgotten for another reason. She had been imprisoned for many years. What mighty civilization now ruled the world? How had magical learning advanced? Did mages whose power dwarfed even her own dwell on the world above? Chalisento continued her search through the sage’s memory.
A mighty empire, Fretheod, had ruled the world during her imprisonment, but it had crumbled ages before. Tiny countries now squabbled among each other, each fighting for their own corner of Makdiar. From what she could see through the filter of Corambis’ mind, magical learning had not advanced during her imprisonment; it had dwindled. The magi that the sage considered powerful would have been mere novices in Chalisento’s time. Pleased with her findings, Chalisento skimmed Corambis’ mind for information on the city above.
Once an outpost of the Fretheod Empire, the city was now called Dargon. It was the seat of power for a duchy of the same name. The duke of Dargon owed fealty to the king of Baranur, who dwelled in the distant city of Magnus. Baranur’s chief rival, imperialistic Beinison, was the largest country on the continent known as Cherisk.
Chalisento began to plan. She would rise from her prison and lay waste to the city — nay, the entire duchy — of Dargon to announce her return. The king in Magnus would swear allegiance to her or die. Once Baranur was hers, Beinison would fall to the combined might of Baranur’s army and Chalisento’s magic. Then she would do what had proved impossible to the Beinisonian emperors: unite the continent under her rule. Once Cherisk was hers, she would build herself an empire that would dwarf the Fretheod at its peak.
She abandoned the sage’s mind, leaving him slumped in his chair. She had briefly considered killing him for his complicity in her continued imprisonment, but decided to wait until she could look into his eyes as he died. Instead, she turned her attention to finding Nakaz. She decided that it would amuse her to have the bard present when she broke the seal on the cave and emerged once again on Makdiar. He had kept her imprisoned for the previous five years. She would flay the skin from his bones for the next five dozen years in return.
Having touched Nakaz’s mind after the bard had foiled her escape, she knew that he would not be hard to find. Even a mind not as strangely multi-faceted as the bard’s was easy to recognize, once touched. Chalisento rose above Dargon once more, gazing down upon the shining lights that represented the thoughts of her future subjects. Nakaz was not in Dargon. This did not surprise her. From what she had learned of bards from Corambis, they were wanderers. She widened her search.
Night fell in Dargon when Chalisento’s awareness finished sweeping over Baranur. There was still no sign of Nakaz. In the cave, her fists clenched as she was forced to admit defeat. Nakaz was dead or hidden in some distant land. Either way, the bard had eluded her. As her awareness returned to her body, Chalisento’s eyes snapped open. The cursed bard had wasted another day of her time! She flung her arms wide and cried out her rage. The green witchfire swirled around her and the sea cave shook as her shout of fury echoed within; stalactites fell and shattered.
The long centuries of imprisonment had apparently affected her self-control. She had wasted too much energy on the bard. If he lived, he would pay for his transgression, in time. If not, he no longer mattered. Her display of anger troubled her even more. Such an exhibition of raw magical power could be detected. If there were powerful magi nearby, she might have placed herself in unnecessary danger. True, Corambis had known of no magi worth her notice, but that did not mean they did not exist.
Chalisento gasped. The angry presence she had sensed before possessing Corambis: she had forgotten it in her obsession to find Nakaz! Had it noticed her? She sensed no power directed against her, nor any awareness focused on her. Whatever it was, it had not detected her, or could not. A third possibility entered her mind: what if she was beneath the notice of the strange power? She dismissed the thought. She was the Margre Chalisento. She would crush the power, or bend it to her will.
Still, caution was warranted, until she could learn the nature of her opponent. She sent her awareness drifting up once more above the city and gazed down upon the bright lights that represented the minds of the city’s inhabitants. Despite the fact that it was well past nightfall, many of the residents of Dargon were outside their homes, clustered along the banks of the river, upstream from the city. She could see why: a bridge that had spanned the river at that point was partially collapsed.
Descending, Chalisento eased her awareness into one of the minds arrayed below her, being careful to use only a feather-like touch: just enough to read the surface thoughts. There was no point in announcing her presence by creating more seizures in the inhabitants.
“Lucia! Lucia, where are you? Great Ol, where can she be?” A man frantically searched through the fallen for his betrothed, missing since the causeway had collapsed. Chalisento skipped to another mind.
“The child! The child is dead!” A healer clutched a dead infant to her chest, but she mourned another child: one that she had never been able to conceive. Chalisento moved on.
A guard pulled another corpse from the river. “How many more dead can there be? God, I know I shouldn’t complain when so many others have lost their lives and loved ones, but where is my relief? Cepero said Espen would be here over a bell ago!”
As Chalisento flitted from mind to mind, she learned little more. The bridge had collapsed when it had been struck by a barge earlier that day. Some of the minds that she had touched doubted that the barge alone had been enough to cause the damage; a few suspected magic. She wondered if the angry presence she had felt was the cause of the collapse, or if its fury could possibly be a result of this disaster. Chalisento moved away from the bridge, toward Dargon Keep, hoping that those who ruled would know more.
She found Lauren Dargon, wife of Duke Clifton, awake in her chambers. “Why did this disaster have to strike while Clifton was away? Was I right in ordering half of the guards from the keep to go help? Is there anything more that I can do? Should I be down there myself? And what about the fire in the kitchen? That poor apprentice was so badly burned! Should I have punished Mayda for negligence? No, she will punish herself enough. If only I had thought to keep Griswald or one of the other healers here, instead of sending them all to the causeway, but how was I to know?”
“Poor Lauren,” thought Chalisento, as she drifted away. “You will have much more to concern you once I emerge, but you won’t have very long to worry about it.” Lauren hadn’t known anything about the presence, either.
It was much the same throughout the rest of Dargon. Almost every waking mind was thinking about the causeway collapse. Those that were not were preoccupied with their own misfortunes. Chalisento encountered people who had fallen down stairs or off rooftops, lost valuables, or burned themselves on cookpots. Then she touched the mind of a man lying awake, restless with worry that did not involve the bridge or his own ill luck.
“Have to find Anarr, that charlatan. Simona thinks that he can help her, but he tried three times already. What makes her think he’ll do it the next time? She’s a bard; she should know better. I bet he just wants to be alone with her. If he weren’t a mage, I’d show him …” A magus and a bard? Chalisento was intrigued. She settled in, watching as the man’s thoughts turned from one subject to another.
He spent a lot of time thinking about how much he loved Simona, and about how much he enjoyed having sex with her. He was clearly jealous of the magus named Anarr, whose power he feared despite his claims that Anarr was a fraud. The man, Kal, had journeyed with Simona, Anarr, and a man named Edmond, first through the mountains, and then on a river. A series of misfortunes had struck the barge on which they had traveled. Chalisento saw visions of a woman falling overboard, the barge drifting out of control, and crashing — this man had been on the barge that had struck the causeway! Was that why he worried? Was he feeling guilt? Disgusted, Chalisento prepared to leave.
“Have to get to sleep. Need to wake up early, catch Rilk at the river, or we’ll never get the cursed statue away from him …”
A curse? That was the angry power she felt? No wonder it hadn’t noticed her. It was merely a mindless manifestation of someone’s hate. A curse strong enough to affect an entire city was incredible, though. A magus strong enough to cast such a spell might be a formidable foe. She had to learn more! Heedless of the effect on Kal, she dug deeper into his mind. The young man’s eyes rolled back and he began to twitch. “If he lives,” she thought, “he should be grateful. When I am done with him, he will get the sleep he craves.”
Within Kal’s mind, she learned that the statue, a figure of a god named Gow, had been the source of a curse on a town called Northern Hope. Anarr had told them that the curse was the work of another god: Amante, Gow’s rival. The magus had claimed that he had warded the statue, keeping the curse in check. Kal thought that Anarr had lied about lifting the curse, but he harbored a deep certainty that it was true. Kal had never learned why Anarr and Edmond were taking the statue to Dargon. He had lost track of, and interest in, the statue after the barge crash until Simona had figured out that the statue’s ward had been removed and that its curse was at work in Dargon.
Kal had come across the statue again some time later, in the possession of a man named Rilk. Before he recognized the statue, Kal had even helped the big sailor to repair a wheel on his cart. Kal had learned that Rilk had been trying unsuccessfully to book passage on a barge across the river. When he had told Simona about his encounter with Rilk, Kal and the bard had made plans to ambush Rilk at the barge docks the next morning.
Chalisento was pleased. Their plan included stealing a sailboat and taking the statue out to sea. Their boat would pass near the cave where her body still stood, bathed in flame. She would wait until they neared her prison and then emerge and seize the statue, bending the power of the curse to her will. She would even be able to capture the bard. Simona would either tell Chalisento where to find Nakaz, or suffer his torments herself.
She considered entering the girl’s mind, and ransacking it as she had done to Corambis’, but she needed the girl to be quick-witted in the morning. Gaining control of the statue was far more important than finding Nakaz, and her plan would fulfill both of her goals. As Kal settled in for the night, Chalisento released her grip on his consciousness, letting him lapse into sleep. Rather than return to her own body, she remained within his mind, nestled among his dreams as she planned her return to Makdiar. She wanted to ensure that she was present when Kal encountered Rilk again.
Chalisento returned her attention to Kal as he awoke. After relieving his bladder, he roused Simona, and the two went to the barge docks. Kal worried incessantly until Rilk appeared. Chalisento vowed to kill both men quite slowly. Then the plan was in motion. Simona distracted Rilk while Kal undid his own repairs and cut the rope holding the statue to the cart. Chalisento shared Kal’s impatience and mounting fear as Rilk continued to lead his mule-drawn cart toward the nearest ferry, while the wheel stubbornly stayed on its axle. When it became clear to her that Kal was not going to act, Chalisento used her own power, channeled through Kal, to pry the wheel loose. She doubted that the man even noticed, since his will had been focused so strongly on the wheel already.
It fell off, dumping the statue to the ground. This time it was Kal who distracted Rilk by offering to help, while Simona snatched up the statue and ran. Kal quickly followed and the two were off in a stolen sailboat moments later. Kal’s last thought as Chalisento left his mind was about their good fortune at getting underway just as the tide was beginning to go out.
Chalisento, her awareness once again within her own body, opened her eyes. “It’s time,” she said, “for Makdiar to tremble at my return!” With a laugh of pure joy, she extended her arm. A simple gesture was enough to burst the magical seal that the bard Nakaz had hoped would contain her for eternity.
Instead of bright sunshine, she was greeted by rushing water. The tide! She had forgotten that the entrance to her cave was only uncovered at low tide. In the far northern latitudes where Dargon lay, the difference between high and low tide was many feet of water. The ocean poured into her tiny prison. The air in the chamber, with nowhere to go, compressed around her, causing her ears to pop. As the seawater crashed in, it failed to extinguish her magical witchfire. It did, however, shatter the natural stone column in the middle of the cave. The ceiling, shaken repeatedly by the tremor that had freed the Margre, her cry of rage at Nakaz escaping her wrath, and the thunderous impact of the sea, collapsed. The sea, the air pressure, the witchfire, and the stone: the malevolent power of an ancient, mindless curse brought the four elements together to work her doom . Even the mighty are not exempt from the curse of a god.