The Falling Darkness
Thus shall you know the Scion of Vallendar, the Child of Magianna: his blood shall be as dark as the rose of Bellenira.
–The Book of the Prophecies
Mystia sat at a table in the main room of her chambers asleep, her head cradled in her arms. All night she had stayed awake, praying to Joretham for herself and her country. But mostly she prayed for Orion; the nameless terror that welled up within her at the thought of him being killed was unlike anything she had ever before experienced. As the darkness began to fade with the morning, her prayers finally ceased as exhaustion overcame her, but even in sleep, peace did not come. She found herself once more kneeling beside Orion where he sat chained to the dungeon wall. His blue eyes were filled with terror as he begged her to pray for him. She reached out to touch his face and could feel the broken and scarred flesh beneath her fingers. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words would come.
A hand shook her roughly, and she awoke with a start. She found herself staring up at a woman, richly dressed, with long, blonde hair and clear blue eyes. Her face bore a cold look, and there was no emotion in her voice as she ordered, "Come with me."
"Who are you?" Mystia demanded as she rose and took a step back.
The woman sighed in annoyance. "My name is Lareina. Kozan has gone to the temple to offer the morning sacrifice. Now is your chance to escape."
"And why give you succor to me?"
Her voice became bitter. "If I were you, I’d simply praise my god that I was being helped and not quibble over the reasons. Now come." Lareina turned and began to walk away, and, after a moment’s pause, the princess started after her.
They walked out of the door past two guards who did not stop them and into the dark and twisting corridors beyond. Mystia's heart was racing, but she did not let terror overcome her. As they walked through the palace she realized that Lareina was a queen, for every time they passed a guard he would stand at attention and salute her. This calmed Mystia's fears somewhat but also filled her with confusion; why would one of Kozan's wives help her?
At last, Lareina led her out of the palace and into the garden. In spite of the fears that still held her, Mystia found herself looking around at the trees and the bushes, for the lush greens of the garden were a welcome sight after the darkness of the palace–indeed after the darkness of the whole of Nolhol.
She started as the sound of Balor's Horn pierced the air.
"We must hurry," Lareina said, "for Kozan will soon return."
They quickened their pace as they strode down one of the narrow paths that wound through the garden. Small statues, some almost buried in the dark green foliage, stared out at the two women as they walked past, and every so often the cry of a bird would pierce the silence as if telling them to hurry.
They rounded a corner, and Mystia almost ran into Lareina as the queen suddenly slowed. Before them, in the shadow of a tree, stood a harpy. She was beautiful, with light skin, black wings, and dark hair that tumbled down over her shoulders. Upon her head she wore a small, ornate, golden crown. Mystia realized the she must be Nirreloyn, Kozan's first wife. The harpy was looking down upon a statue of a dwarf, a thoughtful expression upon her face as she ran her fingers over its head. As Lareina approached, she looked up.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded, as she looked them over.
Lareina took a quick breath and answered, "Before the Dark Sorcerer left, he asked me to take Mystia for a walk in the garden. He thought it wise she be given some fresh air."
Mystia shrank back as Nirreloyn took a step toward her and Lareina.
"Do you honestly expect me to believe such a feeble lie as that?"
"I speak no lie," Lareina answered. "Now let us pass." She tried to push past the harpy who barred her path, but Nirreloyn grabbed her by the arm and threw her to the ground. Lareina scrambled to her feet and with a cry of fury flung herself at Nirreloyn. The two went down in a kicking, clawing, screaming pile. The harpy managed to get on top of Lareina, and the blonde queen screamed as Nirreloyn dug her long nails into her face. Mystia ran forward and grabbed Nirreloyn by the hair, close to the skull. The harpy hissed as the princess pulled her from Lareina.
"Guards!" Nirreloyn shrieked. "Guards!"
"Be quiet," Mystia ordered, as she pulled the harpy's head back.
"Break her neck!" Lareina snarled as she scrambled to her feet.
"No!" Mystia exclaimed, surprised at the queen's blood-thirstiness.
"Kill her!" Lareina screamed as she rushed at Nirreloyn.
"Stop!" cried Mystia, letting go of Nirreloyn's hair.
Nirreloyn wasted no time, but spread her wings and leapt into the air, eluding Lareina’s grasping hands.
"Guards!" she screamed, and her voice carried across the whole of the garden. "A prisoner is escaping! Guards!"
"Coward!" Lareina shrieked as she jumped up and down, trying to grab the harpy. "Come down here!"
Nirreloyn’s mouth turned up in a sneer as she swooped down at Lareina. Lareina screamed as the harpy slammed into her and sent her flying backwards.
Mystia rushed toward to the fallen woman, but Nirreloyn swiftly turned on her, blocking her way. Mystia jumped off the path, avoiding the harpy’s long, pointed nails. Nirreloyn hissed as she turned and flew at Mystia again; once again the princess leapt out of the way. Nirreloyn snarled in anger as she swooped a third time; this time she would not miss. Mystia stood unmoving and watched intently as the harpy sped toward her. At the last moment, she jumped to the side and, as she jumped, reached out with her arms and grabbed Nirreloyn around the waist. Both women fell to the ground. The princess, fighting against the pain of the fall, struggled against Nirreloyn and managed to get on top of her.
"Guards!" Nirreloyn screamed one last time just before Mystia drew back her fist and slammed into her face.
The princess groaned as she stepped up and away from the unconscious harpy. She looked around and saw Lareina lying on the ground nearby. The blonde-haired queen was not unconscious, and she also groaned as she sat up. She looked up at Mystia, down at Nirreloyn, then back up at Mystia. She said nothing, but her eyes were filled with surprise.
Suddenly they heard the sound of men running through the garden and looked up just in time to see a guard come running around a tree. Their hearts sank as the guard called out, "Hey, Larkin! I found them!"
* * *
Kozan stared down at Lareina where she knelt before him on the floor. A table stood beside him, and behind that stood Mystia, silent and passive.
The king stared darkly at his wife for a long moment before he finally spoke.
"Why," said he, his voice soft but filled with rage, "did you try to help Mystia escape?"
She stared up at him with her most cold and spiteful look and refused to speak.
Still she remained silent.
"Answer me, wench!" He struck her hard across the face.
Mystia gasped and stepped toward Lareina, but Kozan spun and stopped her with a look.
Lareina did not make any sound of pain but simply looked up at Kozan, a sneer upon her face.
"Strike me, Kozan," she hissed. "Strike me, a woman who kneels defenseless before you. Strike me and tell the whole of Nolhol so that when you ride through the streets the crowd can cry out, ‘Brave warrior! Noble king! We bow before you who strike defenseless women!’"
"Silence!" Kozan cried as he struck her again.
She looked at him with a hurt expression. "But I thought you told me to answer you."
"I told you to answer me, not mock me," he growled.
"When speaking to you 'tis the same thing."
He struck her once again.
"Why did you betray me?" he demanded. "You’re my wife, my love!"
"Your love?" Lareina cried. "How can even you be such a hypocrite? How can you say I’m your love–you who’ve just struck me thrice? What would you know of love? Is love having another wife besides me? Or is love giving yourself over to who knows how many concubines? Is love striking me and despising me and ignoring me? You know nothing of love!" Her voice rose with anger and bitterness. "But I know what love is! Love is being faithful to one man, though he may care nothing for you. Love is being willing to die for him. Love is helping his accursed woman escape the clutches of his worst enemy!"
Kozan looked at her startled. For a moment he could not even speak as he realized the meaning of her words.
"Orion!" he finally sputtered. "You helped her escape because of Orion." He clutched the table beside him to keep from falling.
"He stole Rhianna from me, and now I find he's stolen you also. Why?!"
"Why do think?” she spat. “He is strong and handsome and courageous and passionate. He has held me as you never did and loved me as you never could."
"No!" he shrieked, striking her with all his might. This time a sharp scream escaped her lips.
"Kozan!" Mystia cried, rushing forward.
"No!" he cried again and struck Lareina once more.
She fell back and remained still. Kozan, wide-eyed and gasping for breath, stared silently down upon her.
Mystia knelt beside the fallen queen and took her up in her arms. She looked down at Lareina's lifeless face, then up at Kozan. Her black eyes were wide and accusing. "You killed her!"
For a moment Kozan knew not what to feel–horror or satisfaction–as he stared down, unblinking, upon his wife's lifeless body. And then guilt and terror took hold of his heart.
"What of it?" he cried, less to Mystia and more to his own conscience. He rushed forward and pulled the princess from the floor; she gasped, and Lareina's body slipped from her arms and fell in a heap.
Kozan looked deeply into her eyes and said menacingly, "I kill who I will, when I will. Just thank your god I didn’t kill you as well."
Loud pounding on the door interrupted their scene.
"What?" Kozan snarled as he turned his face to the door. It opened and a guard walked in. He opened his mouth to speak but hesitated when he saw Kozan holding Mystia tightly and Lareina's body lying on the floor.
"What?" Kozan demanded again, thrusting Mystia from him.
"Y’r Majesty," the guard said as he bowed awkwardly, "we ca’tured this High Elf in th’ palace." He motioned with his hand and two more guards walked in, dragging between them a man dressed in the armor of a palace guard. They threw him to the ground at Kozan's feet. The Elf's long black hair fell wildly around him, and he look up with fearless black eyes at Kozan.
"I assume you were trying to rescue my prisoner as well," Kozan said coldly.
The Elf said nothing in reply, but cast a quick glance at Mystia.
The princess looked in pity upon him. He reminded her of Gideone.
Kozan slowly circled the Elf, looking furiously down upon him as he did so. “I am the Power-king of Delovachia. When I demand an answer you will give it. Now tell me: were you trying to rescue my prisoner?”
The High Elf kept his mouth shut tightly.
“I said answer me!” Kozan cried as he kicked him hard in the stomach. Mystia gasped as the Elf’s eyes bulged and he doubled over in pain. Still he refused to speak.
“Kozan...” Mystia whispered. The dark king scowled at her then turned back to the prisoner.
"Very well," he said when it became apparent the Elf would not speak. "Guards." The three guards stood at attention and awaited their orders. "Take him to the dungeon. Perhaps the torturer can loosen his tongue, but see that he’s not killed. That pleasure will come tonight. 'Tis high time Balor's altar feasted on something more than pigs."
"Yes, Y’r Majesty," said the leader of the three guards. They bowed and dragged the Elf from the room.
Kozan turned back to Mystia who stood silently by, and as he did so his gaze fell upon Lareina's body. He growled and turned his eyes from her.
"Three separate times has someone attempted to rescue you," he said to Mystia, his voice trembling with anger. "I’ll not allow a fourth. From this day until the day you lie dead upon Balor's altar, you’ll not leave my side."
* * *
It was late in the afternoon as Provenna and the Dark Sorcerer walked along the palace walls and conversed together. The cool wind gently caressed their faces and the warm rays of the sun shone down upon them.
Provenna looked beautiful. She wore a silken, green dress embroidered with gold. Her arms were bare, and upon her right wrist she wore a single, small, golden bracelet. Her long, red hair flowed freely over her shoulders, and a small, golden crown rested upon her head. The Dark Sorcerer, for his part, looked more than a little austere by contrast in his simple costume all of black and with his long, brown hair combed and fastened securely behind his head.
"Once again, Your Majesty," he was saying with his strong accent, "I wish your son the quickest of recoveries."
"Thank you," Provenna answered. "You know not how much that means to me." She smiled. "You know, Sir Sorcerer, you’re one of the very few people who’s ever shown any concern over the troubles with which I’m faced."
"I think it sad there are so few who’d show you compassion."
"Such is the price of being a Power–or any Magic of great strength. People believe you to be invulnerable."
There was a moment of silence then she spoke again. "So tell me, how soon shall you return to Delovachia."
"Tonight," he answered. "Indeed, with Your Majesty's permission, I wish to leave within the hour."
"So soon?" she asked in surprise, coming to a halt. She paused for a moment then said, "The few times you’ve come here, you’ve left quickly. Why do you not stay longer and give us the honor of your presence?"
"Kozan dislikes it when I’m gone long from his service, and, as his servant, it’s my duty to return to him as quickly as possible."
"And am I not far greater than Kozan?" Provenna asked. "Should you not do as I bid?"
The Sorcerer was silent for a moment before he answered. "If you require me to stay here then I must, but if not then I’ll return to Nolhol; there’s much there that I must do."
"So you’ll not willingly stay?"
"I will not."
Provenna turned and looked out over the city that stretched in all directions before her. It was truly a city of gold, with its gilded temples and palaces and towers. Even the massive, granite monuments shone red-gold, for the setting sun cast its warm rays over the city, turning the tops of the buildings and the tips of the spires and towers afire with its light.
Her hair moved softly with the wind as she spread her hand out over her city and spoke. "Look long upon this city, sir Sorcerer. 'Tis the jewel of the Realm of Earth. Is it not a city of splendor? Is it not a city to be lifted up in pride over? This is my city–my beloved city. This is the city from which the Realm of Earth is ruled. It has stood for more than five thousand years. Battles great and terrible have raged here; blood has flowed like rivers through the streets, yet it still stands. 'Tis said that Joretham himself once walked here.
"Do you see how far it stretches? Do you see how the sun shines upon it and makes it yet more glorious?" She turned and looked at him. "Is not my city far greater than Kozan‘s? What does Kozan's city hold? Darkness, lewdness, oppression, death. But what does my city hold? Life, hope, beauty, peace." She gazed up at him with pleading eyes. "Leave him and join me. You’ll be great, the greatest prince in all my realm. This city of golden splendor will be your city."
The Sorcerer looked silently down upon Provenna as she gazed up at him, her green eyes filled with a longing he never knew she felt. On her face he saw a sorrow and desire he knew she had betrayed to no one else. He turned his face quickly toward the buildings and towers before him, for he felt he had seen something no man deserved to see.
"'Tis indeed a magnificent city," he said softly. The longing welling up within him was like nothing that had ever possessed him before. He took a deep breath. "And perhaps the day will come when I can return to it and live in peace.” He bowed his head. “But now I must return to Nolhol, for there’s much I’ve left undone.”
He raised his head and looked at her. "And now, if I may leave...?"
Provenna lowered her eyes and nodded.
In silence the Dark Sorcerer turned and walked away. Never before had he desired something as much as he desired to stay in that beautiful city. Had he looked back and beheld Provenna as she stood there, a look of despair upon her face, or had she simply called out to him, all strength of will yet remaining would have left him. He would have run back and never parted from her again. But he did not turn, and she did not speak.
Provenna watched him until he disappeared into the tower at the end of the wall, and she also turned and walked away. Were one to have looked upon her face, one would never have guessed what had transpired upon that wall above that beautiful city. Her features were as unmoving as stone.
* * *
Far to the south, the sun was also setting upon the city of Nolhol, and the time of the evening sacrifice drew near. The streets were lined with thousands upon thousands of people all lifting up their voices in savage cries of praise to Balor.
Up through those streets rode Kozan, upon a massive, black stallion, followed by a huge entourage of priests. Before him walked the chief torturer who drove the High Elf in front of him. Up through the streets they made their way toward the temple of Balor, which stood dark and ominous against the gray sky.
Mystia, veiled, sat upon a black mare and was forced to ride beside Kozan. She looked down in pity and silent horror upon the Elf as he stumbled and fell. His hands were tied tightly in front of him. His black hair, which was soaked with sweat and blood, hung down in front of his eyes, and his face was broken and bleeding. The crowd jeered as the torturer cracked his whip across the High Elf's back. The Elf's eyes widened in pain, but he made no sound. He struggled to his feet and continued on. He was scorned and mocked, whipped and spat upon, but though his pain was evident, he made no noise. Blood and dirt covered his body. Occasionally, as he stumbled forward, stones and sticks and other projectiles were thrown at him. His face twisted in agony, but he forced himself to keep moving.
Up through the streets of Nolhol, Kozan and his entourage made their way until they stood at the very foot of the steps leading up to the temple of Balor. The thundering, furious screaming of the crowd abated slightly as the High Elf suddenly fell to the ground and lay as one dead. Slowly, Kozan dismounted and walked to the fallen man. The Elf's hand moved slightly–proof that he still lived.
"Rise, dog," Kozan growled.
The High Elf struggled to obey, but he did not rise quickly enough. Mystia watched in consternation as Kozan drew back his leg to kick him.
“Stop!” Mystia’s mind screamed.
Kozan’s head snapped around, and the princess slapped a hand over her mouth as she realized she had cried the word aloud. The dark king’s eyes flashed as he gazed at her; without a word, he turned back to the Elf.
"I said rise!" he growled.
The High Elf's eyes were filled with pain, and he struggled to regain his breath. Slowly, and with great effort, he clambered to his feet. The frenzy of the crowd increased as they mocked and sang and cried out in exultation to their god.
Kozan turned to Mystia. "Come." It was more than a command; it was a promise–a promise that her insolence would not go unpunished. She dismounted. Her head was spinning, her legs felt weak, and she was certain that at any moment she would faint, but she managed to force herself to walk to him.
Kozan, Mystia, and the High Elf climbed up the many steps of stone which led to the temple. Behind them came the priests of Balor, dressed in robes of flaming red. They formed two long rows which stretched from the very top to the very bottom of the steps.
Kozan, Mystia, and the High Elf reached the top of the steps and stood in front of the massive door of the temple. It was guarded on either side by the never-sleeping statues of the Baltuil. Thousands of years ago, Balor had set them up to guard his temple. It was said that in times past they had spoken–prophesying and giving the commands of Balor–but, if that was true, they had long since fallen silent. They stood as tall as the largest of horses, but their bodies seemed lithe and muscular like a cat’s. Their paws–both forefoot and hind-foot–had long, sharp claws attached to them. Their granite faces, like those of panthers, were carved into grotesque and evil grins, and their jeweled eyes glowed red.
The High Elf was made to walk first beneath their terrible gaze. He limped forward, his shoulders hunched with pain, but he looked up in scorn at the stone creatures as he passed under them. Kozan followed, his dark robes sweeping behind him as he did so. Mystia took a halting step then stopped at the threshold of their gaze. She dared not go farther.
The cries of the people pounded against her ears.
"Come, woman," Kozan growled, "or Balor shall receive a double sacrifice."
Trembling, Mystia forced herself to take that last fatal step and passed beneath the Baltuil’s leering gaze. As she passed under them, the fiery red light of their eyes flared. From the depths of those unmoving, granite creatures arose the most terrifying of hissing cries, like millions of voices screaming from the pits of Elmorran. "Blood! Give us blood! Give us the blood of Vallendar!"
The cries of the crowd rose, but their roars of bloodlust were now screams of terror and awe.
For a moment Kozan could only stare in amazement at Mystia as she stood petrified beneath the eyes of the statues. He regained himself and in less than a second was at her side. He yanked her inside out of sight of the crowd and stared at her, confusion suddenly giving way to understanding. He pulled a dagger from his belt and, before Mystia could pull away, drew the blade across the palm of her hand. She cried out in pain, struggling against his grasp. He held her tight, and amazement filled him as he gazed upon her palm. The blood pouring down her hand was not the bright red of normal human or elven blood but dark, so dark it was almost black. He looked down upon her and for a moment knew not what to do or say.
“You are the one?” he whispered, agony written upon his face.
Her whole body shook. “Please let go of me,” she pleaded.
Suddenly his features became stony. “But no, you can’t be.”
In one quick motion, he let go of her hand and spun around.
"Prepare the altar," he ordered the priests who stood nearby.
Tears of pain fell down Mystia's face as she held her wounded hand tightly to her. With a trembling voice she whispered a few words in a foreign tongue. Immediately, the gash on her hand closed itself, leaving behind only a faint scar. She brushed her tears away and looked up in time to catch a glimpse of the High Elf as he was being dragged away. Even in that brief glance, she could see how intently he looked upon her.
Kozan walked to the door of the temple and looked out at the huge crowd of cheering people. He raised his arms and cried out in a voice like the thunder, "Rejoice! Rejoice! The blood of the High Elves flows from Balor's altar!" At his cry the cheers of the crowd swelled in fury and intensity until the whole of the temple shook beneath them.
He turned and walked back into the temple and with Mystia at his side entered the inner sanctum. Hundreds of red torches lit the massive sanctuary, but darkness still reigned. In the flickering light the black walls, streaked with blood, could just be made out. In the center of the vast room rose a tall pyramid of steps, and at the very top stood the altar of Balor. A priest dressed in flowing robes of crimson stood beside it, holding a bottle of oil in one hand and a long, intricately carved dagger in the other.
The High Elf, chained hand and foot, lay upon the altar and looked down upon Kozan and Mystia as they ascended the many steps.
As they reached the uppermost step, Mystia gasped, for at the foot of the altar lay her father's staff. Kozan saw what she gazed upon and with a sneer said, "I put it there as a constant reminder that the magic of a High Elf is nothing compared to the power of Balor." With that he turned and walked to the altar.
He looked down with a mocking smile upon the High Elf. The cries of the crowd echoed throughout the temple as Kozan began the ceremony.
"Hear us, Balor!" they cried. "Bless us, Balor! Powerful is Balor!"
"Powerful is Balor," began Kozan, "and mightily he conquers nations." He stretched out his hands over the High Elf. "Feel the fire of his power." Mystia choked as the Elf's body contorted in pain. She started forward, but Kozan turned his head and fixed her with a murderous look. She stopped where she was and could only look on in agony upon the Elf, who still refused to cry out.
Kozan took the jar of oil from the priest who stood silently by. "Balor, we cleanse your enemy of his filth."
The cry of the people still echoed through the sanctuary. "Hear us, Balor! Bless us, Balor! Powerful is Balor!"
The dark king poured oil upon his hand and ran his fingers across the High Elf's brow. "Clean of mind."
He touched his hand to the Elf's lips. "Free of blasphemies."
He took the dagger from the hands of the priest, and then turned back to the High Elf. Mystia shuddered at the sight of the evil blade shining in the light of the torches.
"Great Balor," Kozan said, "we give you the blood of your enemy."
He reached out with his left hand and forced the Elf to turn his head so his right cheek was exposed. Mystia, her body trembling and her eyes wide, looked on in horror as Kozan carved the symbol of Balor into the Elf's cheek.
The cry of the people still shook the temple and echoed throughout the sanctuary. Suddenly it was joined by the sound of hundreds of different voices lifted up in a singing chant. The princess looked down and saw that the whole of the sanctuary beneath the towering pyramid was now filled with crimson-robed priests lifting up their voices in a savage song of praise to their god.
Kozan raised the dagger high and prepared to plunge it into the High Elf's heart.
"No," Mystia whispered, but no one heard her voice. The cries of the people and the song of the priests filled the sanctuary.
Kozan opened his mouth to say something more.
The princess sobbed, but no one paid her any heed.
Kozan's words were drowned out by the people and the priests.
Mystia could stand it no longer. "Leave him alone!" she screamed as Kozan sent the dagger flying down toward the High Elf. She rushed toward the king and ran into him with all her might. He reeled back, nearly tumbling down the many steps to the floor far below. The singing of the priests suddenly stopped.
Kozan regained his balance and rushed toward Mystia. He struck her hard across the face and sent her sprawling to the floor. She screamed in terror and tried to curl into a ball as he followed her down and struck her again and again, crying as he did so, "How dare you strike me!"
"Villain!" a hoarse voice cried out. "Leave her alone! How dare you beat her! How dare you treat any woman so!" It was the High Elf.
Kozan turned in surprise and looked at the Elf, but the Elf paid him no heed. He looked down at Mystia and said softly, "Weep not over my death, lady, for both you and I know I go to a far better place. I die happy for not only will I enter into joy, but I’ve gazed upon the Scion of Vallendar, the Child of Magianna, the one who will finally deliver our people from Norenroth."
The long mournful sound of Balor's Horn suddenly pierced the air and filled the temple.
"Touching," spat Kozan. He rose, walked to where the Elf lay chained to the altar, and plunged the dagger into his heart. The High Elf gave a soft sigh. As the last note of Balor's Horn died away, he gave up his life–the hint of a smile upon his rugged features.
"And thus it is done," hissed Kozan. He turned to Mystia. "Come, wench."
With that he walked from the temple. Mystia, weeping softly, slowly followed him. As they rode back through the streets of Nolhol, the setting sun sank behind the horizon, and darkness fell upon the land.