Edinja Orle had Arlingfant carried from the cellars to the upper levels of her home and deposited in her former room. The girl was nearly hysterical, shaking and sobbing uncontrollably, barely able to keep from falling apart completely. Shocked by what she had witnessed in the building’s cellars, horrified that men could be altered in the ways Edinja had mastered long ago, she was clearly terrified that the same thing might happen to her. That was the point, of course. Edinja wanted the girl frightened enough that she would prove compliant when it was necessary.
She locked the door to the bedroom as she left and beckoned to the serving woman who was standing just outside on watch.
“Give her fresh water in two or three hours. Make sure it comes from there.” She pointed to the ceramic pitcher on the table across the way. “Otherwise, keep her locked in.”
She walked the hall to the main staircase and started down. She had given as much time to this matter as she could spare. As Prime Minister, she had duties and obligations to fulfill. A general meeting of the Coalition Council was scheduled for midday, and she would be expected to give an address. What she would say was problematic, but she was beginning to get an idea of what might best serve to further her current undertaking. In any case, it would be hours before she could return here.
As she descended the staircase, she was thinking ahead—well beyond this day or even this week. Ahead to when she had Aphenglow Elessedil in her power and the Elfstones in her grasp. Ahead to when she had located and dispatched whoever had stolen the Ellcrys seed and claimed the seed for herself. Ahead to when she could begin to see all her planning and scheming and manipulating result in the goal she had set herself many years ago.
Domination over not only the Federation but the remainder of the Four Lands, as well.
It was an end toward which she had been working long before she became Prime Minister of the Federation, or even before she knew for certain how she would achieve what she was trying to accomplish. Like most members of the Orle family—or at least those who practiced magic—a certain mysticism governed her decisions and actions. It was in the nature of magic users to rely on the unseen and the unknown. It was a sort of trust in the belief that if you wanted magic to perform in a certain way badly enough and you were willing to put aside what was said to be impossible, you could always find a way.
She supposed, in that respect, she was not so different from Drust—save for the all-important fact that she had the means and the skills to achieve what she wanted and he didn’t.
On the next level of her descent, she turned down the hallway and went to her personal quarters. Her bedroom was lavishly decorated with fine furniture, carpets, silk throws, tapestries, and paintings. Racks of clothing filled a series of deep alcoves that lined one wall, and a bureau made of teak and black maple displayed bottles of exotic liquids. Cinla was sprawled on her sleeping pad at the foot of her bed, but she lifted her head as Edinja entered.
“Beautiful Cinla,” she cooed as she reached down to stroke the cat’s silky neck and ears. She spent some time giving her special attention, speaking soft nothings to the big moor cat, listening to the sounds of pleasure she made at her touch.
When she was finished caressing Cinla, she moved over to her clothing racks to choose a garment for her appearance before the Coalition Council. She was vain and prideful and not in the least reluctant to admit it. She knew how to sway men and women to her cause and how to keep troublemakers at bay. And how she looked was a part of the process.
She dressed slowly, thinking about all she had accomplished over the past ten years and reveling in the sense of satisfaction it gave her.
It started with her experiments at changing humans into creatures that could better serve her purposes. Such efforts had been a part of the Orle canon of magic through the centuries, but she had managed to advance the study to heights previously unattained. Not only did she discover a combination of chemicals and magic that would create obedient servants, but she also found a way to turn them into thinking creatures capable of making decisions within the framework of a set of commands she provided in advance.
It took years to achieve this. It took countless experiments—all of which ended in failure but nevertheless brought her ever closer to her goal. She was a skilled and powerful sorceress, and her ambitions were buttressed by her firm belief that the ends justified the means. Expendable lives were plentiful and cheap in Arishaig, especially among the poor, and she was never at a loss for human subjects on which to experiment. She was willful and determined, and the lives of others had never meant much to her. If you weren’t a member of the Orle family, you were a lesser life-form. Other people were there to be used in whatever ways she saw fit. Other people didn’t really matter.
The real breakthrough in her efforts had happened by accident. She had mixed magic and chemicals as usual, but at some point in the effort both got away from her and produced an entirely unexpected result. She ended up with a creature that could change shapes at will. It could be anything it wanted. Even better, it was incredibly smart. Unlike almost all of the others, it was capable of independent thought and action. It knew how to weigh choices and make decisions. It could reason and act on that reasoning.
Best of all, it was loyal to her—totally devoted and obedient to her commands.
She knew at once what she wanted of it, exactly how it would be used. For a long time she had been looking for a way to get a spy into the Elven hierarchy. A well-placed spy in Arborlon would give her access to secrets of state and magic that would both help advance her own interests. There was no way a Southlander could accomplish this, but her changeling creature could.
So she sent it to take the place of someone who would have access to information she might want. She had familiarized herself with the Elven royal family long before and chose her victim carefully. She had no idea at that point in time exactly what sort of information she was looking for, so she gave her creature a set of parameters on which to rely, a sort of checklist of possibilities. She taught it to communicate using the arrow swifts, and to distinguish between those dispatched by her and those from a handful of others she trusted to act as go-betweens. She sent it there to live out its life, to serve as her eyes and ears, to become her surrogate in her incessant search for ways to acquire power.
For two years she waited in vain for the one important discovery that would change everything. She learned much about the royal family and the members of the Elven High Council. Now and then, something would happen that gave her fresh hope. But none of it ever came to anything.
And all the while, she sought to re-create the mixture of magic and chemicals that had produced her greatest success, but she could not. She tried everything, heedless of the number of failures, the lives sacrificed. Some of those victims found death quickly, and some found it through enduring unspeakable perversions, lingering pain, and eventual madness. It was all the same to Edinja. Nothing she did produced the results she wanted, and the detritus of her failed efforts was washed down the drains and out into the sewers.
But now, out of the blue, a miracle had occurred. The miracle had really begun weeks earlier when her creature discovered, quite by accident, that Aphenglow Elessedil had found something important enough during her search of the Druid Histories for her to hide it in her clothing and take it from the archives. An attempt to steal it from her while she sat reading it later that same night failed, as did several later attempts. But whatever it was had taken Aphen to her grandfather, the King, in an attempt to gain possession of the Elfstones, and it had brought a Druid expedition into the deep Westland which had resulted in most of the order being exterminated.
Now there was this business of the Ellcrys failing and its seed being presented to Aphenglow’s sister and then having been stolen—possibly by the couple that had found her and brought her to the unfortunate captain and crew of the Federation warship that had carried Stoon and her three mutants in search of the sisters. The crumbling of the Forbidding, the dying-off of the Ellcrys, and a desperate effort by the Elves to put the wall back and keep the Faerie creatures imprisoned from breaking free—it was all connected in some way, and she was going to find out how.
She finished dressing and studied herself in the mirror. Severe, proud, and beautiful in a cold sort of way; she was looking at a woman who was very much in control of her own fate.
She smiled. Of one thing, she felt certain. Good things were coming her way.
After Edinja Orle departed the bedroom, Arling Elessedil waited several minutes before she quit pretending. She waited for the snick of the lock on the door, counted to one hundred, and then quit crying. Not that she wasn’t distraught and frightened; she was. She just wasn’t quite as hysterical and out of control as she wanted Edinja to think she was—not after all she had been through in the past few weeks. She had never been the sort to give in to her fears; never the kind to panic and lose control. But letting the other woman believe she was completely terrified might cause her to let down her guard.
Arling sat up on the bed and took a deep breath. All that screaming and crying had hurt her throat, but she wasn’t about to drink any more of the water—or any other liquid, for that matter—until she was out of this house. She knew whatever she was given to drink would likely contain more of the same stuff she had already been fed—a drug that would make her tell Edinja anything she wanted to know. As of right now—she had decided this on her way up from the cellar and its horrors—she was done doing what Edinja Orle wanted. Before the day was over, she was going to find a way out of there.
But a slow, careful inspection of the bedroom was not reassuring. There was only the one door. There were windows, but they were locked, and iron bars were affixed to the stone of the walls on the other side of the glass. There appeared to be no secret doors or hidden panels. The ceiling was too high for her to reach it without a ladder, and there didn’t appear to be any openings in any case.
Momentarily defeated, she sat back down on the bed and tried to think it through. There had to be a way.
But she was in an impossible situation. She was trapped in this room with no way out. She could do nothing but wait for the return of the woman who was keeping her prisoner and would do the same with Aphenglow if she got the chance. Arling was frightened her sister would use the Elfstones to come looking for her and, in the process, end up in the same situation. She couldn’t let that happen. She had to escape and find Aphen first. But she had no idea where Aphen was or how to go about finding her.
She had to find the missing Ellcrys seed, too, and she had no idea how to do that, either. She didn’t even know for certain what had happened to it.
She could eliminate several possibilities, however. Aphen wouldn’t have taken it and then left her; she would have stayed with Arling no matter what. It was a good guess the captain of the warship and his crew hadn’t taken it, either—not without Edinja finding out. Not after what had been done to them. So that meant it had been left behind in the wreckage after she had been thrown clear, or stolen by the couple who had carried her away and left her with the Federation warship.
One of them, she remembered suddenly, had been called Sora.
She shook her head as if doing so might clear away all the confusion. Time was running out. She tried not to think about it, tried to shut it out of her mind and just concentrate on the problem closest at hand. She needed to get free before she could find her sister, find the missing Ellcrys seed, find the Bloodfire, and do whatever she could to put the Forbidding back in place.
She sagged back on the bed, fingers knotted against her mouth, realizing suddenly what she had just done. Without meaning to—but without any hesitation at all—she had just embraced the fate the Ellcrys had ordained for her. Even in spite of her determination not to, she had let her thoughts take her down that road.
All the way down.
She began to cry again, and this time it was real.
Three hours later, as the daylight darkened with a fresh onslaught of storm clouds that had moved in from the north, roiling and churning across the expanse of the Prekkendorran, the bedroom door opened. The servant woman carrying the pitcher of treated water stood in the opening for long moments, her free hand on the door, clearly ready to slam it shut again if the need arose. She saw the figure lying on the bed, wrapped in blankets with her head on the pillow, unmoving. Even them, she hesitated, obviously not wanting to take any chances.
Finally, seeing no movement at all, she entered the room, and Arling leapt out from behind the open door to strike her a heavy blow and knock her unconscious.
Arling then lowered the section of the bedpost she had managed to remove and set it aside. She dragged the unfortunate servant around to the other side of the bed where she could not be seen, took a moment to look around the room to see if anything seemed out of place, and then moved quickly to the door. She peered out cautiously and found the hallway empty.
Without further hesitation, she burst through the door and ran for the stairway.
In another place entirely, a disgusted but determined Oriantha trekked along the rocky flatlands of the Forbidding in the wake of the Straken Lord’s advancing army, watching the indefatigable Tesla Dart scurry ahead of her like a water bug, with Lada and one or two other Chzyks as company. She had managed only a few hours’ sleep the night before after returning from her failed effort to free Redden Ohmsford, and she was tired and irritable. Both were due as much to her dissatisfaction with herself as from physical exhaustion.
She gazed off into the distance, where the dust raised by the passing of the enemy army filled the air. Her body ached, warning her to slow down (or, better yet, to stop) before she collapsed from the effort of keeping up with the Ulk Bog. But she knew she wouldn’t do that; she was determined to push ahead. She had a streak of stubbornness a mile wide, and once she set her mind to something, it took more than aches and pains to stop her. It took more than a cage ringed with magic, as well.
In any case, she wasn’t about to stop, turn back, or even slow down while that annoying Ulk Bog was capering about as if completely immune to the weariness that was affecting her. She wasn’t going to prove less able and willing, and then have to listen to the little creature’s pointed comments all the way back to whatever doorway would release her from this prison and put her back into her own world.
She spit some dust from her mouth and slogged ahead. She wasn’t giving up. Not until she got Redden out of that cage.
Although once she did so, she fervently hoped that Tesla Dart’s boast about being able to put them back in the Four Lands was more than just talk.
She returned to thinking about how she would deal with Redden’s magic-warded cage. There had to be a way to get past the Straken Lord’s magic. Or a way to negate it. Or to strip it away. She wished she knew more about that sort of thing, but in spite of her hopes of being allowed to join the Druid order, she possessed limited knowledge of magic. It was one thing to be a creature of magic; it was another entirely to have knowledge of its use.
The truth was that she didn’t have much experience at all; she only had the talent with which she had been born. That might seem to be enough, given that she could turn herself into smoke. But passing through iron bars laced with magic was impossible, even with a shape-change that left her as insubstantial as air. She would, out of necessity, have to brush against the bars or touch some part of the cage in order to gain entry, and that would be all it took to engage whatever magic was in place. Even reaching through the bars might be enough to give warning. If the Straken Lord was going to this much trouble to haul the boy along with him on this march, he must have an important reason for doing so. That meant every precaution against his escape or rescue would have been taken.
She considered the number of Goblin guards and demon-wolves assigned to stand watch on Redden: many more than were necessary, unless their real purpose was not so much to keep him in as to keep others out.
Tesla Dart reappeared in a rush from the wilderness ahead, a flurry of waving arms and churning legs. Oriantha held out her hands to slow the Ulk Bog down before she knocked her over.
“Lada returns!” Tesla announced in an excited voice. “There is an opening close! Different one, not familiar. We are going out!”
The young woman stared. “What do you mean? We are going out where?”
The Ulk Bog grinned, showing all of her considerable teeth. “Into your world, shape-shifter! Back to your home!”
She turned and darted away again, running hard, apparently afraid she might miss something if she lingered even a moment longer. Oriantha gave chase, suddenly frantic. What was Tesla Dart talking about? Why would they be going out into the Four Lands? But she knew the answers almost as soon as she asked the questions. This was the invasion the Ulk Bog had warned about, the invasion Tael Riverine had warned he would mount if he were not given Grianne Ohmsford. Somehow Oriantha had thought they would have more time before the Straken Lord acted on his threat. Apparently she had been wrong.
“Tesla, wait for me!” she called.
The chase went on for perhaps fifteen minutes, and it would have gone on much longer had the Ulk Bog not decided to turn around and rush back to offer fresh insight.
“Tael Riverine does this to show strength,” she announced, coming to a ragged halt in front of Oriantha. “He demonstrates his power to your people. Will wait to see what they do. Maybe he attacks. Maybe not. He is unpredictable. Very much dangerous.”
“Wait!” Oriantha snapped as she sensed the other was about to sprint off again. “Are you sure of where we’re going? How can Lada know?”
“Ha!” Tesla Dart was convulsed with laughter. “Lada so fast. Lada runs circles around army. Goes way, way ahead to see what he can find. Finds the opening. Can sense what it is. Opening must be to one place. Your world.”
True enough, Oriantha thought. Where else would Tael Riverine be taking his hordes? She glanced skyward, catching sight of the Straken Lord aboard his huge dragon, circling overhead, just visible through the clouds of dust and dirt.
“Maybe he’s not going through the opening just yet,” she said suddenly. “Maybe he’s just taking the army up to the opening and then will have it wait there to see what happens. Maybe he will send someone through to speak with the Elves and ask about Grianne.”
Tesla cocked her bristly head as if studying a very strange insect. “Tael Riverine will ask? No, shape-shifter. He demands, and then he takes!”
They continued on, the Ulk Bog and the Chzyks scouting ahead, Oriantha trudging along behind, no longer bothering to hurry, knowing it didn’t matter. She was not fast enough either to keep up with her companions or to get ahead of the army traveling in front of her. The army wasn’t quicker than she was, but it was much, much wider. It sprawled across several miles of wilderness, and any effort to go around it would require a sizable detour. Without knowing where it was going—because there was no way to know where this new opening would take them—she might as well wait and see where they ended up before making any decisions about what to do. Whatever she did, she needed the invading army to stay in one place long enough for her to leave it and return with whatever help she could find.
She realized she could not go back into the enemy camp when night came to try to free Redden. Doing so would risk death or capture, and she could afford neither because she was the only one who knew what was about to happen and could give warning. With the Druid order decimated, she would have to get word to both the Elves and the Federation’s Coalition Council. She would have to warn the Dwarves and the Border Cities. A united Four Lands would be needed if the Straken Lord’s army were to be stopped and turned back.
Even then …
She didn’t want to speculate further. Getting that far would be difficult enough.
She thought about the reason behind the appearance of the openings. It was obvious the Forbidding was collapsing and the creatures trapped inside were breaking loose. For that to be so, didn’t the Ellcrys have to be failing? When had this happened and why hadn’t the Druids known about it—especially the three who were Elves, and who should have been aware of the problem long ago?
She picked up her pace, worried now that she would be too slow in doing what was needed. The day was fading, and with it the gray light that washed the barren landscape. Here in this prison of ancient Faerie creatures labeled demonkind, it was never brighter than the twilight of her own world, but she could still feel the approach of a deeper darkness.
Yet it was still light when she saw the wash of brightness ahead—a long swath that cut across the landscape’s horizon, pulsing softly, promising that something new and different was waiting. She hurried faster, catching up to the Ulk Bog and the Chzyks, which had slowed for her. By then, the front ranks of the demon army were already passing into the light and disappearing beyond. Atop his dragon, Tael Riverine was urging them on, sweeping across the sky in great arcs.
“Hurry!” Tesla Dart hissed at her.
In minutes they were positioned at the rear of the army’s left flank and could follow it through the opening in the Forbidding with a minimal chance of being recognized. There was so much dust and dirt in the air that it was impossible for anyone to see clearly for more than a few feet. All they had to do was pretend to belong. Oriantha began encountering Jarka Ruus almost immediately, but they were advancing through the roiling haze with heads down and eyes averted. She moved swiftly in their midst, a shadowy figure intent on avoiding physical contact. One of many, she angled in fits and starts among the trudging figures, making the same sounds they did, snapping and growling, animalistic and predatory. She tried to keep Tesla Dart and the Chzyks in sight, but they had disappeared somewhere ahead.
She was left on her own, much the way she preferred it—a reflection of how she had lived most of her life.
But after a long period of groping through clouds of dust, she passed through the wash of light flattened against the horizon and found herself outside the Forbidding and back in her own world. Haze changed to brilliant light that blinded her, and then to familiar sunlight. She recognized the Four Lands immediately; the changes in color and taste and smell were unmistakable. One minute she was inside the Forbidding and the next she was clear.
Yet she was still in proximity to creatures that would kill her in a second if they realized who she was.
She turned aside quickly, angling away from the ragged minions of the Straken Lord, beasts hacking and coughing from the dust in their throats, eyes gone red and narrow. She faded into nothing—just for a moment, just long enough to find concealment—before crouching down in heavy brush to get her bearings. She looked about and knew instantly she was nowhere near the Breakline or even in the deep Westland. This country was lush and green. A river shimmered in the distance, winding its way through hills and grasslands. There was farmland all around, plowed and seeded. The sun was bright and the skies clear.
Tesla Dart appeared from behind her, crouching close. “This is your world?”
“It is,” she acknowledged, still looking around.
“You know this place?”
Then she saw it, just visible through a screen of woods and tucked down between low rolling hills to her right. Sunlight glinted off metal surfaces in bright flashes and burned the blackened stones of massive walls and towers.
It was a city fortress, huge and forbidding.
She caught her breath. She knew the city instantly.
It was Arishaig.