Shades of Darkness Prologue
By Iris Amergin
The sun dipped slowly below the horizon, casting a few last rays of light across the Yied Desert; light that was thrown about and reflected from the surfaces of fallen weapons, casting eerie shadows upon the faces of the men who had wielded them.
The desert was littered with bodies, testament of a brief but furious battle that had occured not twelve hours before. Most of those bodies were knights of Lenster, members of the Lanzenritter. A few were Thracian dragon knights; although the Lanzenritter had been at a severe disadvantage, they had managed to take a few of their foes with them.
But these were not the bodies Elvidner was interested in.
"Further north," the necromancer muttered to himself. "He would have been at the head of the formation, of course."
"But sir..." The boy behind him tugged his sleeve timidly. "Couldn't you make use of these too?"
"Of course I can. But I'm after a much bigger prize than these knights, and I want to be certain I have the energies for it. Use your head, Sudra."
Sudra hung his head. "Sorry."
"Don't apologize. Just think next time," said Elvidner irritably, still moving forward. He stopped periodically to examine the bodies. "He's here somewhere...ah! If I'm not mistaken, we've found him." He knelt beside one of the bodies. "Just in time. If we'd arrived much later I might not be able to pull this off."
Sudra nodded, watching as his master set to work. Necromancy was a delicate magic, requiring intense concentration and fine control over one's powers. Even among the Loput Sect, where such dark arts were still practiced, few had the talents necessary to pursue a career in necromancy, and fewer still put in the time and study to become masters of the art.
Elvidner was one of the best.
Sudra frowned. Something was wrong; Elvidner seemed to be having far more difficulty than he normally would. Summoning and controlling a shade was never easy, of course, but this one seemed to be particularly reluctant--
"Got him," Elvidner said wearily, removing his hand from the corpse. "That was a tough one."
"Are you alright, sir?"
"Just tired. It's that damned Noba blood. They're all so stubborn--even in death the son of a bitch fights back." He sighed. "And it felt almost like something else was holding his soul back..."
"But you got it, didn't you?"
"Yes." Elvidner stood, dusting the sand from his ebony robes. "Our work here is done."
Sudra frowned and pointed to the corpses. "But maybe her--"
"No. She would be useful, but I don't have the strength to deal with her. It's a regretable waste, but a necessary one. Let's go."
"Dead?" asked Lachesis numbly.
Sigurd nodded, closing his eyes. "I don't want to believe it, but the reports seem reliable." He leaned against the wall and covered his face with his hands. "It's such a waste!"
"I can't believe it..." she murmured. "Do...do we know who killed them?"
"Thracian dragon knights. I can only assume that Trabant saw an opportunity he just couldn't resist--although I wouldn't be surprised if someone from Grandbell put him up to it, too." Sigurd drew in a deep breath, composing himself. "Lachesis, I'd like you to go to Lenster."
"What?" she asked, startled. "Sigurd, are you crazy? You need me here!"
Sigurd shook his head. "Fury scouted out Leptor's force. She says it's not as large as I expected, and they still haven't moved out from Velthomer. I'd assume they're waiting for us to come to them, so we've got plenty of time to prepare. We can handle it."
"But why chance it? Why not let me stick around and go to Lenster later?"
"Even if we get to Velthomer, I still don't know what's going to happen to us," Sigurd said. "I'd rather send someone now, when I know you've got a good chance of making it there in one piece. Lenster's informants don't go as far as Yied. If somebody doesn't take them the news, they might not know about it for months, and Trabant will work that to his advantage. We can't just leave them ignorant of their prince's fate."
Lachesis sighed. "You're right, of course. You usually are. But why send me?"
Sigurd scratched his head, his voice taking on an awkward tone. "Well, it's hard to find a polite way to put this..."
"No! But from a tactical standpoint, your loss does hurt less. You're equally adept at a multitude of things. If you go, we suffer a small loss in each area. Whereas if I sent, say, Levin, we'd have a gaping hole in magical offense. That kind of thing is harder to plan over."
"Makes sense," said Lachesis, although she could not completely disguise the sting in her tone. "I guess I won't be missed, then."
"Lachesis..." Sigurd sighed. "I don't mean it that way. Your skills give you the best shot at being able to handle whatever might happen on the way. And you have reasons of your own to travel to Lenster."
She nodded. "Sorry I snapped. I just..." She shook her head. "I really wanted to be here for the endgame, you know? For Eltoshan's sake."
"I know. And I'm sorry." He put a hand on her shoulder. "But Finn's out there in Lenster, with no clue that his lord is dead--and no clue that he has a son. I know you've missed him."
She smiled. "I have. And I want to stay, but if you sent anyone else, I'd be mad, because I want to be with him, too." She sighed, lowering her eyes to the floor. "I hope Oifey and Shanan are taking good care of Delmud. I don't like sending him away, but what else could I do?"
"I know how you feel," said Sigurd grimly. "And they have Selis, and Ayra and Lex's twins...those two are going to have their hands full. But I just didn't see any other option. We'll all go find them, someday. If we live through this."
"When we live through this," Lachesis said firmly.
Sigurd smiled weakly. "I wish I shared your optimism."
"You've survived everything they've thrown at you so far. You've liberated entire nations, you've challenged dark sorcerers...you won't die here, Sigurd. Not yet."
"An execution order isn't exactly something you can fight with a sword, though," Sigurd pointed out. "Much as I wish it were. It certainly would make things easier."
He seemed about to say more, but was stopped by the sound of approaching footsteps. They both turned to face the source. Alec and Sylvia came in.
"Sorry to interupt," said Alec. "But we heard you two talking...I'm sorry about Cuan and Ethlin, Sigurd."
"Thank you," said Sigurd, his tone subdued.
"But that's not really why we jumped in," said Alec. "If Lachesis is leaving, I'd like for Sylvia to go with her."
Sigurd raised one eyebrow. "Why?"
Alec sighed. "Well, I don't really want her around for the rest of this, you know? She's got to Lynn to take care of, and with another kid on the way..."
"You're both agreed on this?" Sigurd asked, turning to Sylvia.
She nodded. "Yes," she said quietly. "I don't like it, but he's right. So I was plannin' on goin' to Darna until this is over."
"Darna makes sense," Lachesis mused. "It's the closest place to here that's remained neutral. And it's on the way to Lenster."
"I see no problem with it," said Sigurd. "But of course, it's up to Lachesis if she wants the company."
"I don't mind," said Lachesis. "It'll be nice to have someone to talk to, even if only for part of the way." She looked at Sigurd. "How soon do you want us to leave?"
"As soon as you're ready. We'll be making preparations for the next battle, of course, but I don't plan to move on Velthomer until you've gotten a good head start to Lenster. If Leptor moves his forces too soon, there's a risk of you being discovered, and I'd prefer not to chance it."
"Right," said Lachesis. She turned to Sylvia. "Can you be ready to head out tomorrow morning?"
"Great. I've got a few things to take care of before tomorrow, so I'll see you all later." Lachesis nodded to the others and walked briskly out of the room.
"I think she's mad at me," said Sigurd.
"Why?" asked Alec.
"For having her go. It implies that I don't need her here as much as I need everyone else." He shrugged. "But what can I do? If I don't send her, she'd be mad that I sent someone else to see Finn, when she wants to see him more than any of the rest of us."
Alec shrugged. "It's a no-win, Sigurd. She's a bit too proud--same as her brother. But she'll get over it."
"I hope so," said Sigurd. "I'd hate to send her off, possibly never see her again, and have to live with her being mad at me."
"Don't be fatalistic," said Alec. "We'll live through this."
"Right," murmured Sigurd as Alec and Sylvia left. "I hope so, anyway..."
"Are you sure you've gotten enough rest for this, sir?"
"I'm sure, Sudra. Now be quiet and let me concentrate."
Sudra bowed his head apologetically. "Sorry."
Elvidner did not respond. He was already concentrating on his magic.
Sudra watched, fascination outweighing his momentary shame. He had seen this done before, but it never ceased to amaze him. Once summoned, a shade norma lly existed in a noncorporeal form; their spirit remained in the world, but had no physical anchor. As long as the shade existed outside the physical realm, it had no power to influence it. Thus, in order to get the maximum use out of the shades he summoned, Elvidner had gotten into the habit of anchoring them to physical bodies.
Never human, of course. Even if he was in control, shades were by nature rebellious, and it would be risky enough to give a normal shade a human form--let alone a shade of such power as a descendant of the Crusaders.
Elvidner continued building his spell, the air humming with power around him. Sudra leaned closer, his excitement growing; it was almost finished--
There was a loud pop as the spell was released, and a large crow materialized in front of Elvidner.
"Welcome back to the world of the living, Prince Cuan," Elvidner smirked. The crow glared at him and preened its feathers.
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