Authors: Keith Baker
“You could have told me that before.”
This is your battle, not mine. I can only observe
Cursing meddling kalashtar, Daine walked to the barricade wall and hoisted himself over it. Instinct kept him close to the shadows; perhaps there was something to this hidden enemy after all.
The battlefield was eerily familiar, every detail exactly as he remembered it. He stepped over the bodies of fallen soldiers and shattered warforged, looking for any signs of life, but the field was just as cold as the campsite and far too silent. Even the flames made no sound. As he approached the burning wreckage of the airship, there was no crackle of flame, no aura of heat. If anything, he felt a slight chill, a shivering cold that seemed to pass through leather and cloth. Then he saw it: a dark blot stretched beyond the ruined vessel. From a distance, it had seemed to be the shadow of the shattered ship, but as he moved closer, he could see that it was nothing so natural. It looked like a pit of glittering tar, but he could see that the surface was in constant motion—not bubbling, but shifting, tiny tendrils rising up and collapsing back into the darkness. He moved slowly toward the pool. With every step, the chill increased.
“You’ve come too late.” The voice was distant, as though cast
onto the wind. It was female, low, and despite the distortion he could hear the predatory satisfaction. “We have claimed this place, and this is only the beginning.”
A figure stepped out from behind the burning wreckage, moving forward into the light. Her cloak was woven of pure shadow, and green eyes gleamed beneath the deep hood.
“Lakashtai?” Daine said. He raised his crystal blade into guard position, warily waiting for the woman to make her next move.
The stranger laughed, musical notes scattered across the dark wind. “Not quite, but you might say that we’re sisters.” She tossed back her head, and her hood fell back from her face. Like Lakashtai, her delicate features had an inhuman perfection, as if crafted by an artist who sought beauty with no sense of realism or compassion, but her skin was even paler than that of Lakashtai. Her hair was pure white, bound into a thick braid and wound about her neck; it seemed to glow with an inner light. “I am Tashana, little Daine, and your mind is mine to do with as I will.”
“We’ll see about that.”
She wasn’t armed, but her confidence suggested unseen powers, and Daine wasn’t about to take chances. He walked forward slowly, ready to launch into a swift lunge as soon as he was close enough. Glass or not, he should be able to pierce her skin.
“So we shall.”
The pale woman raised a hand. Tendrils of shadow rose from the pool and twined around her arm. The darkness flowed along her skin, and in seconds she was encased in a shield of shadows.
Daine shivered. There was something deeply wrong with this situation, and he felt the fear that only comes in a nightmare—the certain knowledge that as bad as things were, they could get even worse in the blink of an eye, with no limits on what terrors could appear. He fought the urge to turn and flee, running back to the safety of the camp, but he forced himself to seize hold of his emotions, to quiet his fears and hold his ground. If this was only a dream, nothing could truly harm him here.
Even as she spoke, the mists surrounding the woman rippled and reformed, creating a monstrous silhouette. Two muscular arms were tipped with massive pincers, and a dozen smaller tendrils writhed around the headless torso. There were no clear legs on the shadowform, just a long, powerful tail tipped with a fearsome stinger.
Daine had seen worse sights in the Mournland, but the lingering fears remained. Though he tried to silence his doubts, he could feel his heart racing.
I’m dreaming. None of this is real, not even my fear
He brought his blade into the fourth guard position, presenting his right side and placing the point between him and the creature. Pushing away his doubts, he studied the monster. As disturbing as it was, it was a thing of mist and shadow; he could almost see the woman within.
It’s a trick, some sort of magic—a disguise, nothing more
“Allow me to prove otherwise.”
The shadowbeast charged forward. A huge pincer lanced out to crush Daine’s head, but he slid to one knee, dropping beneath the blow as he slashed up with his sword.
It was a perfect stroke and would have crippled a creature of flesh and blood, but this was like striking the wind, and the blade passed through the dark form with no effect whatsoever. For a moment, Daine let his guard drop.
It’s just a shadow, after all
. Then the creature caught him with a backhanded blow. The pincer slammed into his chest with the force of a sledgehammer, throwing him backwards and onto the ground. He rolled to the side just in time to keep the dark stinger from piercing his heart; instead it caught the edge of his chest, tugging against his chainmail.
Rising to his feet, he did his best to dodge the lashing claws. For a few moments he spun around the monstrosity, backing away and fighting to stay a step ahead of the dark horror.
It can hit me. I can’t hurt it
. A memory was lingering on the edge of his thoughts, and even as he ducked beneath another blow, it came to him: Pierce’s flail passing harmlessly through the insect swarm. Perhaps physical force wasn’t the answer. Heat might not hurt this thing, but light just might.
As the creature swung at him again, Daine stepped to the side and dove forward, rolling beneath the blow and toward the wreckage of the stormship. Dropping his useless sword, he grabbed a chunk of burning wood from the ground.
He flung the spar with all of his might, aiming directly at the creature’s chest—right where he guessed the woman’s head would be, if she was in fact within the shadowy form. Even as the makeshift torch left his hand, the dark shape shifted, becoming ever more solid; for a moment, the mist became pure obsidian, thick and hard as stone. The wood shattered into a thousand sparks.
The beast shook with laughter, even as it resumed its shadowy state. “You can’t win this, Daine,” she said, her voice a howling wind. “You cannot begin to comprehend my power. I am the darkness.”
“Scary. Scarier if you were just a little bit faster.” Despite his bravado, Daine was still fighting the fear that clenched at his stomach and cried in the back of his mind.
“My physical strength is the least of your worries. There are greater weapons at my disposal.”
She raised her massive arms, and the ground around Daine erupted in motion. Across the battlefield, corpses were moving: maimed human and broken warforged, all of the fallen were rising to their feet, forming a living wall around Daine.
“Now would be a really good time to wake up,” Daine muttered.
He set his back against the keel of the stormship and grabbed another broken spar. He could see familiar faces among the shuffling masses: Lynna carried the morningstar that had shattered her chest, and Cadrian staggered forward despite his broken face. Daine took his guard position and prepared for the first onslaught …
And then came the light.
A brilliant luminescence flowed over the field, and the lurching corpses paused to shield their eyes—even those with no eyes left to shield. A glowing figure stepped out of the wreckage next to Daine, a woman wrapped in a hooded cloak that shone with the brilliance of the sun.
“Let him go, Tashana.” It was Lakashtai.
Laughter. “You’re a fool to come here, child of Kashtai—as great a fool as your ancient mother. We claim this man and his dreams. Leave now, and you can earn a few more days of life.”
“He will not stand alone.”
The nimbus of light surrounding Lakashtai intensified, and the shadowy figure seemed to wilt in the glow. But even as the monster cringed, tendrils rose from the dark pool, flooding into the beast and restoring its strength. In moments, it was even larger then before—and the aura of light was beginning to fade.
“Then fall together.”
A vast wave of darkness rippled forward from the shadowy figure. It slammed into Daine, enveloping him in cold and silence, and he knew no more.
ei was working on a wand.
She had a gift for weaving enchantments, creating magical tools to serve the needs of the moment, but these magical infusions were temporary, and the power would quickly fade if it wasn’t used. Binding a permanent enchantment into an object was a more difficult task, and one that could take days. The wand itself was a short stick of livewood—an unusual form of lumber that still held the spark of life even after it was severed from its tree. Lei was weaving a healing enchantment, and the livewood was ideally suited to holding this power. For the last few days she had been preparing the wand, bathing it in a series of alchemical liquids and planting the initial paths into the wood. Now it was time to bind it all together. Holding her hands over the livewood, she reached out with her mind. The world receded until all her senses were focused on the wand and the patterns of mystical energy around it. Slowly, painstakingly, she began to pull at these glittering threads, weaving a web of power that would let her channel the lifeforce of the living wood to heal the wounds of another.
It was a difficult task. The slightest slip in concentration could cause the entire pattern to collapse, ruining days of work, yet Lei found that she was never as relaxed as when she was binding the forces of magic. Challenging as it was, it was clean and logical, and it was as natural to her as breathing. Her daily life, on the other hand, was chaotic and painful. Over the last few
years, she’d seen battlefield horrors she’d never forget. She’d lost her parents, her home, and her birthright—everything that had given her life meaning. She’d lost the man who was to be her husband, though it wasn’t a match she’d asked for. Pierce and Daine were all she had left, and Daine … When she’d served with him in the war, things were simple. She was the heir to a dragonmark house, and despite his rank, he was just a soldier. A friend, certainly—but once the war was over, they would never see each other again. There was no point in thinking of anything beyond friendship; they belonged to different worlds, but now …
Something was wrong.
She pulled back from her trance and looked around. The old wine cellar was just as it had been a moment ago. The crystals were properly aligned on the table, and the silverwax candles were all alight.
“Dasei, what just happened?”
Dasei was Lei’s assistant. She was a homunculus—a magical construct given a semblance of life by Lei’s talents. While similar in principle to the warforged, the little wooden woman was not fully sentient. She could follow instructions, and her skills were invaluable when Daine’s crazy jobs took Lei from her work; enchanting was delicate work, and it was not something that could be left unattended. Despite her mystical talents, the homunculus lacked initiative or free will. She was a tool, not a person.
Dasei could not speak, but she could send her simple thoughts directly to Lei’s mind.
Nothing changed. Paths prepared
Lei frowned. She couldn’t explain the feeling. There was a feeling in the back of her mind, a thought she couldn’t quite catch hold of. Something had just happened, something bad, and if it wasn’t related to her work …
“Finish this binding. I’ll be back in a moment.” Lei had named the little creature after one of her more annoying cousins, and she always took a certain satisfaction in ordering the homunculus about.
. Dasei climbed up onto the table and sat next to the wand, stabilizing the magical energies Lei had been working with.
Lei picked up her staff and made her way up the rickety stairs. The staff was formed of darkwood, jet black and stronger than oak. One end was carved in the image of a beautiful elf maiden, with long hair winding around the shaft. The staff was a gift from her deranged Uncle Jura and a mysterious sphinx. Considerable magical powers were bound within the wood, but Lei had been unable to determine the extent of its abilities or how to activate them. She was beginning to think that the staff itself was intelligent—that it was aware of its surroundings and acted only when it suited its own unknown goals. While she still had her doubts about the staff, it had served her well so far. Beyond its unknown powers, it was a strong and sturdy weapon, and it had saved her life on more than one occasion.
The stairway brought Lei out into the kitchen. She paused and listened intently. Though the initial chill had passed, the sense of unease was still with her—a lurking dread that she couldn’t explain. At first she heard nothing, but then she caught the faintest rustle, the barest sound of movement. She slowly moved toward the door, staff at the ready. When she was a child, her parents had arranged for her to be trained in the arts of stealth; her father had been determined to educate her in a broad range of skills, and while it had been a hard life, she silently thanked him for it now. Crouching low, she let one eye slide beyond the doorframe, peering into the large common room that lay beyond. A large humanoid figure was standing in the shadows by the fireplace, a flat object in one hand. As she watched, he reached up and made an adjustment, and the rustling came again.