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Prologue

A dark wind whispered above the ramparts.

Silver-trimmed banners of Lwuatha Castle twisted in the ominous breeze. The silver falcon emblazoned on the royal blue background seemed, animated by ethereal fingers, to truly soar over his domain. From its windy aerie, the thread-and-fabric falcon aloofly surveyed the city of Cirid, sprawled below in its dusky splendor.

Needle-like spires of sundry guild halls and lords' townhouses reached into the air, each seeming to rise higher than the last. In the shadow of the city's great outer wall, the windows of the rich merchants' houses in the Gold Ring were already alight with the flare of imported oil lamps.

The central ring of Cirid city still bustled with the day's activity, despite the fact that one moon had already risen. The sun had almost vanished behind the jagged silhouette of the Aemen Mountains to the west, which flung pointed shadows across the city below and the hilly forest land to the east.

Above it all, the invincible, ancient citadel-fortress of Lwuatha Castle stood, guarding and watching over the capital city of the Cluster Kingdom. Outlined in shades of darkness against the cloud-misted sun, the massive castle's towers and walls loomed impressively over the city from atop its vantage point on the highest hill, just as it had for centuries.

To the people of the Cluster Kingdom, and especially those of Cirid city itself, Lwuatha Castle was the center of the world. No single symbol represented solidarity and strength more than the wind-worn walls of the edifice that was the castle.

Nobody ever thought to refer to it as other than "the castle." Due to the conquest-minded ancestors of the current High King, hundreds of other fortresses dotted the face of the Cluster Kingdom. However, none was so revered as Lwuatha Castle. It was the castle. In the minds of the populace, Lwuatha Castle was the Cluster Kingdom, and every honest citizen of the Kingdom (for it was the Kingdom) thought of the castle affectionately, like a gruff but kind grandparent.

This late summer evening, the dark wind wove itself around the old castle, probing. As if searching for a chink in the structure's stone armor, the chill breeze seemed to center itself around the fortress, spawning otherworldly eddies in the courtyard and twisting the banners into strange shapes as it traveled.

In its passing, the dark wind blew the felt cap off of a young boy's head, causing him to stop in his task. Inside the castle, the boy frowned in mock-annoyance and bent to pick up his errant cap and jam it firmly over his ears to keep the frosty air away.

That done, he cast a half-suspicious glance towards the clouded heavens and continued in his work: lowering the flag for the night, as was the custom. It had always been the custom, at least as far as the boy knew. Although his age was nearly thirteen years, the straw-colored hair that grew thickly atop his head, untamed and unconquered by comb or brush, lent him a waif-like appearance, making him seem younger.

He was a lighthearted lad, often given to laughing at the most ridiculous jokes, and finding mirth in even the most mundane of actions or words. Brown eyes that danced with uncontrolled energy and vigor, seeming as if they were constantly in danger of overflowing with mirthful tears, had earned his master's nickname for him: "bright eyes." Others who knew called him "Sir Mirth," but by most of the castle, he was referred to merely as "boy." True to his nature, he found amusement in all three names.

The boy grinned slightly and forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand; Livven would thrash him if he failed to return by sundown. Pulling down the bristly rope hand over hand, he finally saw the triangle-shaped standard slide into view, framed against the window and the slate-grey sky.

Something looked different.

He had seen this same sight a thousand times before, but this time, the falcon looked somehow foreboding, as if it were the harbinger of evil news. Though he could not say how, it seemed to the boy that the banner's falcon mocked him with its embroidered eyes.

A sudden chill bit the boy through his linen shirt, and he pulled his rough woolen cloak tighter about him. That blasted wind again! Suddenly, he wanted to be done with the task and back inside the castle proper. His normal light mood had fled, so he hastily pressed on until he was able to unfasten the knots which held the Kingdom flag in place on its pole.

Those knots had given Assistant Cook Livven fits when the boy had taken ill a few weeks before, condemned to his bed with the red spots and a fever. Livven had been charged with the duty of raising the flags each morning and lowering them each dusk until the boy got better.

Unbeknownst to the ill-tempered Assistant Cook, the boy had grown for the first few years of his life as a fisherman's brat in the coastal settlement of Arnel, near Eltim Bay. As such, he had known how to tie most sailors' knots before he spoke well enough to call them by their proper names.

Livven had cursed the knots with irritation when the boy had returned.

"Can't you do it?" the boy had asked innocently as Livven strove to untie the nightmare of loops, back-loops and snarls. Smiling slightly at the recollection of the cook's sweaty red face as he puffed and tried gamely to undo the knots, the boy continued down the hall to where another flagpole rose out of the ceiling and leaped fifty feet into the air above.

He was about to turn the corner where the next flagpole stood when something caught his eye. By the Eight Gods! There was the most tasteless statue he had seen in all his life! Pausing to examine the small representation of a man on his horse, the boy shuddered. The man, though nothing more than carved stone, looked . . . bloodthirsty. The eyes were cold and cruel, even in sculpture, and the mouth was set in a malignant frown.

The boy shook his head. That sculpture was new. It had replaced the one with a monk talking to a deer a few days ago, with no explanation. Not that he rated an explanation from the king.

Realizing he still held the first flag in his fist, the boy tucked it into a silken pouch which belied his otherwise plain attire, and began to lower the next flag. As he did so, he couldn't keep his eyes from drifting back to the sky where the grey color was deepening. The falcon standard once again slid into view. Against the sky, it looked for a moment like an ancient dragon from the children's stories he had been told when he was younger.

The falcon looked different, yes, but perhaps the sky was what really captured the boy's attention. The storm clouds overhead roiled and churned, as if they held some secret evil; they were just twitching to unleash their mighty fury upon the castle.

Of course, the wind wasn't helping matters; ethereal hands clawed at the flag, trying to tear it from the boy's grasp. He had never seen or felt such an odd breeze, or heard one that moaned so. Surely, it was a witch-wind.

Chiding himself fiercely for such childish feelings, he quickly finished the job and continued down the hall to the next pole.

* * * * *

Ranill cedLluah, eighty-seventh High King of the Cluster Kingdom, stood beside his throne, hands clasped behind his back. His hazel-colored eyes, undimmed by age, stared out of the stained glass window which depicted a legendary Knight of the Light. In Ranill's opinion the day had gone well; the nobles of Semondar had finally peacefully agreed to end a conflict which had grown continually for years between Semondar and its neighbor, the dukedom of Hyrakk.

It had been a long and arduous task for Ranill, made even more difficult and tedious by his cousin, Earl Harloft of Semondar, who continually demanded that Hyrakkians observe the eastern border of Semondar a full twenty miles farther east than anybody else in the assembly could successfully remember.

Although the Duke Harold cidEseal had been more than understanding, his three barons had chafed at suffering the pompous Semondarians' attitudes during the council. The corners of Ranill's mouth turned slightly upward in almost-humor as he recalled Harloft's face when the page had brought a map defining the borders of Hyrakk and Semondar; the land which the earl currently held was already nearly twenty leagues in violation of Hyrakk's borders.

When the mayors and reeves of Semondar's most prominent cities had backed Harloft in his claim, Ranill had felt sure that a minor uprising was in the works, and possibly even a civil war between Semondar and the rest of the Cluster Kingdom. Luckily, Duke Rodney of Krysst, another mediator, had stepped in and calmed Harloft's fears.

Truly Tormall, patron god of justice and patience, had been watching them all that day!

Ranill now allowed himself a smile: a frank, honest grin that raised the edges of his mustache. In his middle fifties, Ranill had iron grey hair and a physique that still reminded one of his warrior's days when he had fought against the Ogrelords of Skith. Those distant years had been barbarous times, when a king had to be on his guard when traveling to other realms, even with his armed entourage and secret bodyguards.

High King of the Cluster Kingdom, Ranill was a benign and fair ruler, liked by all his subjects. In the decades since he had donned the torc and crown of the High King, Ranill had proven himself to be cool-headed and practical: traits which were appreciated by both his subjects and his neighbor-kingdoms. Many of the sovereigns of other nations respected and admired him, and more often than not, he was called in as a peacekeeper between two warring kingdoms.

His position as High King was not easily won; the Witan, a council consisting of many important nobles of the Kingdom and several respected sages and sorcerers, had elected him as sovereign to preside over the five Viceroys at the end of the Northlands War decades ago. Since then, his life had been an endless stream of diplomatic missions and hours of court.

As High King, he was only obligated to listen to the complaints which his five Viceroys--the Duke of Krysst, the Duke of Hyrakk, the Earl of Semondar, the Baron of Clathiss and the Baroness of Myrhhinthia--did not have the authority to remedy. There had been a time when a High King was attended by seven Viceroys--one for each old kingdom in the Cluster Kingdom. However, the Earl of Syroc and his entire family had been assassinated years previously, and the Baron of Distith had turned traitor. Ranill--with the rest of the Witan--had elected not to elevate any other nobles to the now vacant positions, choosing instead to give control over to a council of mayors, counts and reeves of the realms.

However wise a decision it may have proven itself diplomatically, Ranill had been forced to live with the headache of receiving both Syroc's and Distith's cases of criminal law for years, with little time to merely pause and enjoy his life.

Therefore, this evening without any obligations was a special gift from the gods, and not to be wasted.

As Ranill watched the birds in the garden, a barely perceived movement out of the corners of his eyes caught his gaze. A bit to the left, he could make out the knight-marhsal's son, Llith. The young man strolled, partially hidden in the purple shadows of the evening, their violet cast deepened by the painted Knight's cape in the stained glass.

Llith walked aimlessly back and forth, motioning as if he spoke to someone, although Ranill couldn't quite make out who it was in the failing light of dusk. The king strained his eyes and moved to a spot where he could see through a clear plate in the window.

Ah, Mikan! Of course it would be the sorcerer's apprentice to whom Llith spoke. Dark blue, velvety robes worn by Llith's companion made him nearly indistinguishable against the shadows of the evening. Once ward and apprentice to the Sorcerer of Lwuatha Castle, Mikan had been found abandoned as a baby on the doorstep of a cobbler's house nearly twenty four years past.

Ranill smiled to himself as the pair walked off into the deeper shade of the gardens. Llith had just been knighted the day before, and Mikan had only just received his seal to practice magic as a full sorcerer a few weeks before that.

The King had watched the two grow up together, and felt almost a father to each of them. He remembered when Llith had first asked about stories of the Great Knights and their heroic deeds, while Mikan had been more interested in the legends of the Wizards of Hyrakk. Even then, each one had his own heroes chosen.

Minutes crawled by while Ranill mused, and the green of the courtyard inexorably receded into darkness. The neatly trimmed hedges formed a maze in which the king often strolled. Now they resembled angular blades jabbing out of the earth's green face.

The king shuddered. Night and its children, the three brother moons, tricked the eye. Its shadows often hid things too craven to show themselves while the sun's countenance beamed down. It was no wonder the Dark Knights of legend were feared by other sects of Knights, for they bore the title of Guardians of the Night. They had kept much of Krysst at peace for a time, though it seemed that within last few centuries they had abandoned the Cluster Kingdom, and indeed nearly disappeared. Krysst was in near chaos now, and Duke Rodney had taken such drastic measures as placing his entire realm under martial law.

Though martial law was rather a harsh step in Ranill's opinion, he had to concede that the entire Kingdom had been submerged in one conflict or another for nearly half a millennium, with peace a rarity. Although there had been no truly devastating events recently, such as the Northlands Wars, the Kingdom's morale had been worn by its constant struggles; Duke Rodney's actions were merely a product of the situation.

That was Ranill's perception. In truth, although the Kingdom had been in minor border skirmishes between the kingdom and the Goblin Hordes of the North for quite awhile, the average peasant or freeholder saw it as only enough to keep soldiers and knights from getting fat and lazy. For the Ranill's subjects, the real problem was outlaws.

Thieves and outlaws had become more and more a commonplace in the past decade. Whether brigands of the northern countries needed fresh ground for their atrocities or the villains already in the Kingdom had simply become more bold, it was getting to the point where every family, even the poorer farming clans, would keep a store of bows in the barn or a spear beside their sleeping pallet.

For the past few months though, the problem seemed to be easing up, and Ranill was happy. Although inclined to disagree to what the populace thought of the county's martial state, he was quite in accord with his people's opinion of the outlaws and pirates that threatened the everyday safety of men and women within the Kingdom.

Ranill sighed and walked back to his silver encrusted throne. It was made out of an light hued wood, possibly oak. He could never remember what type of wood it was, although he had been told several times. Velvet blue cushions gave easily as he settled heavily into them, his back aching just the slightest bit.

The golden crown he wore rubbed uncomfortably on his brow after a full day, so Ranill removed it. It was truly a piece of art; intricate knotwork out of red-gold wire formed shapes of animals across the brow. In particular, two falcons--the symbol of Ranill's kingship--perched on either side of the large uncut emerald set in the center of the crown's front. It would be almost painful to surrender such an object of beauty to the next High King.

The Royal Torc, no less a symbol of his kingship than his crown, scepter and robes, weighed on his collarbones, but it was less easily removed than the crown, so Ranill let it be. That, at least, he would not need to give to his successor; each Royal Torc was specially designed and forged for the new King. Ranill highly doubted that the next High King would favor the heavy white-gold collar set with emeralds and sapphires and threaded through with wires of red gold. As he understood it, the fashion now was for slimmer, lighter torcs.

Well, he mused, let the young lords and courtesans have their fashions. What should an old war-dog like me care?

Inwardly lamenting his increasing age, the king shifted restlessly in his throne. Of course, he thought wryly, aging and dying was the way of things. When his own time came to pass to the next Realm, he hoped to do so with dignity.

"Still a few years before that," he muttered, half self-deprecating. Shadows did not answer, and the king stared for a long time at the tapestry-covered walls. The dais upon which his throne sat had always held only one throne; Ranill had no queen, and therefore no son.

While this would spare him the headache of endless bickering when the Witan met to choose his successor, it also meant that he had never known the joy of raising his own child. Ah, well. Too late to dwell on it.

Despite that, he had never felt lonely. The now-abandoned seats where visiting nobles usually sat during court usually were filled during the day, and Ranill couldn't remember a time when the Great Hall had been devoid of a minstrel or jongleur for more than two consecutive weeks.

No, Ranill decided, he could never claim regret for never having chosen a queen. Still, surrounded by flickering shadows and mute tapestries, it was hard not to feel a bit lonesome at the moment. He swept a keen gaze across his Great Hall as he lounged in the throne.

He had not held court for hours now, there were no pressing diplomatic matters that needed his attention, and he somehow felt it would be wrong to go to his private chambers this early.

Although he had not worn his finest clothing for court today, he still looked resplendent in his golden-brown tunic, trimmed with golden braid and black geometric symbols. While many courtiers thought his leather hose looked uncivilized, they were comfortable, and reminded Ranill of his old home Clathiss, where his youngest brother now reigned as one of the five Viceroys.

Restless, he stood and paced again.

He brushed by a rich tapestry. After being High King for almost twenty five years, he had come to take such luxuries for granted. Stopping in his tracks, he frowned. There were many subjects in his kingdom who would kill for the price of just one tapestry in his court room, and here he stood, walking past it as if it were a common piece of wool! If he was taking this for granted now, how long would it be before he no longer cared whether his subjects were living or dying? Angry at himself, and determined not to slip into the role of a blind and thoughtless ruler, the king stepped back and regarded the tapestry.

Ranill tried gamely to admire the woven scene despite his initial reaction of nausea when he looked at it. This was art? It looked like a common bandit slitting the throat of a wounded horse! Ranill made a very un-kingly face as he wondered what he was thinking when he bought that. Making a note to have his master of decorations take down the ugly thing in the morning, Ranill turned to contemplate a more pleasant scene.

That, at least, was the plan. However, as he turned heel on the stone slate floor, he beheld an even more grotesque depiction. The character in this scene was a seedy looking creature, its grey lips pulled back over its boarlike snout to reveal yellowed fangs dripping with saliva.

Ranill snorted in disgust. He was sure he'd never bought that. This tapestry was completely unfamiliar to him. It must be the master of decorations' idea of a joke. Mirthlessly, Ranill spun to look at another tapestry. This jest might have been funny at another time, but now it was merely vexing. Was there nothing to look at which did not involve scenes of murder?

Everywhere Ranill looked, he was greeted by yet another horrible depiction of violence. Surely this was not a jest; the master of decorations could not possibly afford to buy so many tapestries just for the sake of such a tasteless prank!

Ranill studied the closest tapestry. It was caked with dust near the bottom, and a thin film had settled over the surface; it had been in place for more than a month. Yet Ranill would have sworn on his father's grave-stone that he had looked at the picture just a week ago and seen a heroic dragon slayer where now a goblin stood.

Slightly disturbed, the king turned and began to walk for the door, ignoring the rain that lightly pattered on the windows and the breeze which whispered in the elm trees outside. As he was turning to close the door behind him, he saw a strange flicker out of the corner of his eye. Sure now that someone was playing a joke, Ranill burst back into the room in ill humor and glared about.

The chamber was shrouded in darkness, and not a living thing moved within.

Weary of this game, Ranill glowered. "Who is in this room?" he demanded.

Silence greeted his ears, stillness his eyes.

Ranill shook his head. From feeling elated at having ended a centuries old feud just a few hours ago, he now felt a dark sense of foreboding and dread. This was ridiculous! He was just tired, that was all. Perhaps he should retire to his private chambers, after all.

Too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice that the rainfall had grown louder, faster, and more insistent, he gave the room a final glance and prepared to close the doors of the chamber.

He froze. One of the paintings in the corner was leering. Undoubtedly, the figure had been grimacing just a few moments before, but now it was grinning evilly, its teeth showing in a macabre smile. Feeling an eerie sense of dread creep upon him like a mist in the swamps, Ranill called down the hall.

"Gaelgard!" he cried, "Attend me!"

Less than a few seconds later, the armored figure of one of the king's Personal Guard appeared at the end of the hall in his burnished mail and royal blue surcoat. Gaelgard tramped down the passageway quickly, stopping a breath away from the king's elbow and bowing. "Your Majesty," he said.

Ranill acknowledged the bow and pointed towards the painting. "Do my eyes deceive me, or do you too see anything amiss with these paintings?"

Gaelgard looked dutifully at the painting, his eyes betraying nothing. For a moment he stared, then Ranill heard a sharp intake of breath.

Ranill's eyes flitted to the side to take in Gaelgard's response. What the king saw shocked him: the soldier's face was ashen grey and the lips trembled, trying to form unspoken words as the eyes took in a scene of absolute horror. Battle-hardened eyes stared, fright-glazed at the painting.

Ranill, his gaze turning back to the painting, felt all the blood drain out of his own face, and his heart skipped a beat. As both men watched in terrified fascination, the leering figure reached for its sword and pulled out its weapon.

All around the room, bandits and robbers in tapestries and paintings armed themselves, the paints and threads rearranging themselves in front of the king's eyes, twisting and changing colors to form the constantly shifting figures of the criminals and monsters around the room drawing their weapons.

"Call out the Guard," whispered Ranill hoarsely. "And keep it quiet. There's no need to alarm everybody in the castle."

Gaelgard nodded once, unsheathed his sturdy, wire-hilted sword, and handed it to the king.

"Until I return," he explained, and disappeared down the hall, in a flicker of blue and silver.

Ranill fingered the hilt of the sword. The familiar gesture flooded him with memories. Inexplicably, he found himself thinking of one of his old traveling companions, a priest of Raor. The sharp-witted cleric had been fond of suggesting that Ranill felt the need to make up for something by constantly carrying his sword around. That the innuendo had come from a priest still amused the High King.

A chuckle escaped his lips.

As if a floodgate had opened, suddenly, the king was laughing, oblivious to both the now raging storm outside and the moving artwork in his chamber. Catching his breath, he looked into the eyes of a thug bearing a club across the room from him in a tapestry. The king, feeling like a child, stuck out his tongue, feeling an uncontrollable impulse to jeer, "Nyahh nyahh!"

His fist tightened around the wire grip of his sword, and Ranill choked on the unnatural mirth.

What black magic was this? Laughter that was not his own still threatened to burst from his throat, but fright prevented it. If this was Ithlarr the Sorcerer's idea of a prank, Ranill was not amused. The king suddenly felt sick, and bent double, head spinning.

For a long moment, he remained like that, willing the nausea away. A blinding flash of lightning outside brought the king back to his senses. His scattered thoughts re-converged upon the situation at hand, and he glared balefully at the figure in the artwork before him.

The man in the tapestry sneered, and Ranill felt again the urge to laugh, but he controlled himself. That sneer looked familiar. Searching the woven face, Ranill suddenly recognized Parran, leader of a gang of cutthroats from the city of Holoth. Parran had lived in luxury as his gang killed innocent merchants, craftsmen and nobles alike to gain their booty. The brigand had finally been captured and brought to trial before Ranill, but had escaped under mysterious circumstances before the sentence of hanging could be carried out.

For a moment, the king boggled, then suddenly understood.

Somehow, the bandits were in the tapestries. His first impulse was to reach for one of the slowly burning torches on the wall. With a quick swing of Ranill's arm, the torch was under the cloth of the tapestry. Expecting to see the fabric smoke and then burst into flames, the king was dismayed when nothing happened. No matter what he tried, the tapestry would not burn.

Insistent, he jammed the flames right up below the tapestry so that the head of the torch was touching the woven fabric. A burning sensation bit his hand, and he dropped the torch with a yelp. The flames had leaned backwards away from the tapestry.

Parran grinned evilly and wagged an admonishing finger at the king. The soundless lips formed words Ranill was sure were mocking. Enraged, Ranill grabbed the edge of the tapestry and yanked with all his might, seeking to tear it asunder. But the cloth was as solid as steel, and would not yield even an inch. Parran laughed silently.

Now full of anger and determination, Ranill hefted the sword Gaelgard had given him. Was that a glimmer of fear in Parran's thread eyes? Experimentally, Ranill walked forward and poked the tapestry with the sword Gaelgard had given him. The sneer on Parran's face turned to a look of fear and malice. Ranill grinned. "Thought to mock the High King did you? You escaped justice once, you deceitful bastard. To Morddill's Hells with you." he growled, and slashed across the tapestry with the sword.

Expecting the cloth to rip and fall to the ground, Ranill was prepared for anything but what happened. There was a loud cracking sound and Parran, audible now, howled chillingly. The tapestry stayed intact, but the leaves from the picture fell to the ground, surprisingly real for what had been just so much thread and dye but a few moments before.

A red line appeared across Parran's midsections, and widened. Ranill expected to see it fall in a heap to the ground. Instead, he was horrified to see the thread fall into a pool of "blood" at Parran's feet. Even more horrifying was what happened next.

At first, Ranill had thought the tapestry must be unraveling, but there had been no red thread to unravel from where the magically animated figure was now writhing in pain, the cloth teeth gnashing in hatred as the figure collapsed to the ground in the picture. The thread was not unraveling.

Blood was flowing.

Real blood.

Ranill winced as the red life seeped from the tapestry. Rain began to pour in torrents within the depiction and soon, that too dripped from the lower corners of the tapestry.

"Guards!" Ranill cried, "Guards!"

Gaelgard and a troop of palace guards came running breathlessly though the door. The soldiers caught their breath as the entire tapestry once containing Parran burst into weird green flames, which ran in rivulets down the dripping blood and made pools of fire where the rain from the tapestry had fallen.

"Black sorcery," one of the soldiers breathed in horrified fascination.

"Destroy the tapestries! Destroy the paintings!" cried Ranill, slashing at another depiction of a brigand, this time an oil painting. The man in the painting nimbly dodged Ranill's slash and watched as the parchment next to him was ripped open by the glittering blade. Grey mist poured from the rip, and voices laughed insanely from within.

Ranill blinked and then lunged, jabbing the man in the stomach. The figure snarled, its teeth flashing against the lightning outside the windows. Red paint that was not paint began to pour out of the painting, and the figure collapsed heavily to the ground.

Ranill stepped back and caught his breath. The room was alive with moving pictures and tapestries, and the guards hacked and slashed at them all over. Green fires around the room burned sporadically in eerie counterpoint to the colored flashes of lightning outside the stained glass windows. To Ranill, the scene looked like a nightmare, and everything seemed to slow down as he watched one particular bolt of lightning touch on the tower across from the building.

As the lightning smashed into the roof of the tower, the expressions of hate and fear on the criminals' faces turned to mad triumph. Gaelgard choked and fell back as a thick, foul-smelling black fog began to emanate from the paintings.

In horror, they all watched as an outlaw in one picture begin to balloon out and take on real substance. The face twisted in pain and agony, and for a moment, it seemed as if the man would be torn asunder by the strange forces pulling him out of the painting.

Then, eyes alight with triumph, the bandit leapt from the picture, screaming bloody war cries and swinging the broad sword he bore above his head in wide circles as if it were a mere rapier. He charged the hypnotized Gaelgard with a bloodthirsty snarl, and died almost instantly as another soldier's spear split the brigand's chest from behind.

Gaelgard breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and for the moment all seemed still. The fires burned quietly, and the storm seemed to have subsided. The guards around the room shook their heads as if the encounter had all been a dream.

"I think it's over," ventured a soldier standing over the slashed canvas-and-wood remains of a painting. After another few moments of silence, the rest of the people in the room grunted their agreement. Low, nervous conversation broke out amongst the assembled soldiers, each already recounting what he had seen.

A single laugh silenced the company.

Ranill felt the hair at the nape of his neck stand up in primal warning as a low, evil chuckle echoed through the room, originating from the air itself.

There was time of one word before the attack came, and Gaelgard was the one who said it.

"Scitte."

Simultaneously, all the people in the remaining tapestries and paintings burst out, screaming and whooping. Battle-hardened veterans in the royal livery died under bone-crushing morning stars swung by the paint-made-flesh bandits, and Ranill fought for his life as he witnessed a mad slaughter.

Striking again and again until it seemed the blade of his sword would break and fall, Ranill's lungs screamed for air as he tried to make sense of the madness that surrounded him. The fighting reached a frenzied crescendo, and then an ear-splitting thunder crash boomed. Ranill winced.

The sound made waves of wind, and many of the guards and outlaws alike were knocked off their feet and into piles of bodies littering the floor, either in the silver and blue of palace guards or the filthy and tattered rags of bandits and thieves.

All was still as everybody in the room, indeed, all around the castle, recovered from the deafening sound. Then, the bandits at the end of the room stepped aside and made a column, pushing dead bodies and mangled half-corpses out of the way.

Ranill strained to see the end of the room, where the thieves made gestures of respect and obeisance. Eerily, the torches all around the room lit themselves, and the scene of gory disarray was shown in full. Ranill choked and bit back the impulse to vomit as he saw in hateful clarity the dead men strewn everywhere.

He turned his hatred to the end of the room.

No man occupied the Ranill's throne, though the bandits all looked towards it with a mixture of fear and respect. Nevertheless, the air twisted around a shape seated upon the fine brocaded cushions, refusing to touch it. The newly relit torches guttered, flames bending away from the throne as if the escape the malignant presence. A stale, morbid cold spread across the room, pressing down on Ranill with the inexorability of the grave.

Something was there.

The air shifted, sending dark waves rippling amongst the men in the room. Many of the bandits quivered where they stood, and the palace guard seemed to cower as one. Ranill felt his knees threaten to buckle as an intangible sea of emotion washed over him. Something horribly alien passed through his mind, leaving only brief, if vivid, impressions.

Bitterness. Betrayal. Anger. A grey-robed figure wailing over a heat-blackened skeleton. Something massive and multicolored and incomprehensibly evil swimming through a sea of stars and souls. Age. Age so deep that Ranill's mind rebelled even as he tried to encompass the enormity of it.

Hatred.

Hatred on a magnitude that reduced Ranill's entire being to a tiny grain of sand, blasted away before an unimaginably violent wind. Hatred and rage piled so high and dark and deep upon one another that the filthy blackness of the emotion fueled itself and grew to encompass everything in its path.

All this Ranill felt, and more. Grasping for a point of reality on which to anchor himself as sailor caught abovedecks during a terrible storm seeks to lash himself to the mast, the High King felt himself pulled by invisible threads of iron towards his throne and the horrible thing that waited there. Was it his imagination, or just the effects of this awful sorcery? Ranill would have sworn that two eyes had coalesced from the misty figure on his throne.

Moving forward, puppet-like, Ranill couldn't help but look into the eyes. Two livid slashes out of reality and into a place of infinite sadness and anger and wisdom turned rotten, they bored into the High King. If the waves of darkness had passed though him, these eyes tore the skin from his body in strips and probed the deepest corners of Ranill's mind.

His own memories welled within him and submerged reality into a murky world of half-remembered pains and sharp recollections of personal loss. His mother's face floated before him, once again crusted with the diseased yellow stains and growths that had taken her life when the plague stuck Ranill's childhood home. His own father, lungs punctured by a crossbow bolt and lips frothy with blood, conferring the Viceroyship upon Ranill.

The eyes tore through these memories and discarded them like chaffe. Deeper, ever deeper the thing searched, slashing through apparently random memories and stopping to dwell a moment on others equally as unimportant. In his mind's eye, Ranill saw the Arch Sorcerer Nandref once again broken in two and hurled across the streets of Cirid and into the fear-stricken faces crowd of knights and mercenaries by a nightmare of wings and claws. Again, Ranill stood bleeding before a power-maddened Goblin Lord in the mountain-citadel of Ghin Bolud. Rivers of blood coursed down the mountains of Dologonith, the dwarf-home. Ranill saw through tear-blurred vision his own blade impaling a Dark Holy Knight who offered no resistance.

As suddenly as the invasion of his mind had begun, it stopped. The High King collapsed to his knees and gripped his chest, gasping. Half-kneeling before his own throne and a terrible, cloud-like darkness, he barely understood when he heard his own name.

"Ranill cedLluah." The deep, rasping voice spoke the name like an accusation. Though the voice was soft, it filled the room and the torches rattled in their iron sconces on the wall. Ranill's bones shivered within in him, as if they wished to splinter within his body.

Summoning up the courage that had sustained him through the Northlands Wars and the Battle of Burn Water, Ranill pushed himself to his feet.

"Who are you?"

He had meant for the challenge to be bold. However, in comparison to the pervading, all-encompassing voice of the other, Ranill's voice was a weak kitten's mew. His hands clenched into fists in embarrassment.

"Who are you?!" This time, it was an authoritative bark that cut through the dream-like atmosphere.

The deep voice chuckled--a horrible, hollow sound that made Ranill's teeth grind. Cynical to the point of madness, and filled with loathing--for itself and all other things--the laughter was an affront to nature. Its voice was mocking, obscenely amused with its own triumph.

"When the sun moves backwards. When the earth bleeds. When three moons blaze at mid-day . . ."

Ranill's heart stopped. The rhyme was known by every citizen of the kingdom since childhood.

"The Black Paladin shall come."

The whisper might have been Ranill's own, completing the verse.