Part Three: Chapter 39
Unquiet pierced the DoomBringer like an arrow as he sat ahorse, studying the towers of the Red King. It was a feeling like none other since his departure from Mardotha. Not shame, regret, nor guilt. Not love, hate, nor rage. No…this was different. It occurred to him that the journey to Dolras was an action of his will, not his mother’s—and that he couldn’t easily recall another time when this was so. The once mighty walls of the castle perimeter lay broken in heaps all about him, the jagged edges of their crumbled stones long smoothed by west winds blowing in from the sea. Carefully he swept his eyes over the rubble. A steady stream of debris evanesced from it like smoke from a flame, sending dust clouds dancing east across the sky.
A marble-clad archway that had once supported the massive city gatehouse still stood defiantly intact among the ruins. The arch remained, but the barbican was destroyed; and the iron bars of the gate had long been looted, most likely by some forgotten horde of raiders desperate for armor and weapons. The gateway was huge. Twenty men could pass its span abreast, and engines of war could roll with ease beneath its lofty rise. Many reliefs and inscriptions were carved into the marble cladding. The largest one was situated above the keystone at the crown, and—though eroded and fragmented—the words could yet be discerned:
From the Womb to the Pyre
The First, the Last, the Fury is the Fire
Dragan mouthed the words softly as he urged Allethion on beneath the arch. The Fury is Desire, he mused, recalling a common saying passed down through the ages: one that’d originated in mockery of the Red King’s death but had since evolved into a universal maxim. A saying to which he could surely relate…for desire had burned hot within him for as long as he could remember.
Passing now into the outer city, the DoomBringer surveyed his surroundings while his mind wandered back over all he’d ever learned of the place’s history. Aldrotherin had been the castle’s last permanent inhabitant. What’d been a mere stronghold and watchtower prior to his coming, he’d transformed into a bustling, opulent city. Rasyrethra, Sun beneath the Sun, he’d named it anew. During the city’s springtime it’d rivaled Rardonydd and even ancient Hiseod in population and power: for at that time, the climate was milder, the ground was fertile, and the sky was only red at day’s end. Bourgs and farms sprouted from the earth like crops outside the city walls as far as the Asendath to the south and the Daudus to the west. The Red King had beckoned, and the masses had heard his call: for the freedom, wealth, and protection he’d promised them was indeed secured in the flowering of that golden age. Yet as the happy years marched on, the people’s debt to Ûmrothsul was steadily accruing. And sadly, they knew it not.
The streets and alleys making up the outer city’s grid were, for the most part, still unobstructed. Brick half-walls and stone foundations remained, but it was a mystery now what buildings they’d once supported. Dragan could tell a few by their layouts. A buttery. A smithy. An inn. The rest, however, were little more than shapes in the dirt. He passed by them all slowly and cautiously, navigating the eastern road as it wound its way up to the keep.
The inner court was contained by a curtain wall, which had been the original castle wall before Aldrotherin’s arrival. This wall too was crumbled, although in places it still retained its full height. The demure archway of the gatehouse stood in sharp contrast to that of the outer. It was made from ashlar, modestly sized and with no inscriptions. Its gate was missing also. A large column more than a yard in diameter lay toppled before the entrance. The GrimHelm dismounted, tied Allethion to the remains of a nearby statue, scaled the column, and entered.
The ward was as barren as the outer city, and he wasted no time traversing its length. His eyes hadn’t lit on a single ingot of metal since entering the city, but now the keep’s massive ironclad doors loomed over him, barring his passage to the hall within. Dragan rubbed his palm lengthwise down the door. Here the vandalism had stopped. Not a trace of wear or defacement could be found on the smooth metal surface. All the hardware was intact. The stones and wooden beams that comprised the vaulted forebuilding were undamaged. What is this? he thought dubiously, peering momentarily back over his shoulder to survey the ruins a final time before recalling his gaze. Two mighty loops of black steel hung heavy before him, inviting his pull…but as he reached to grasp them, the doors creaked open involuntarily. The gap formed allowed the red-orange haze of the sky to paint a narrow welcome path on the dark floor within. He hesitated, his mind running through potential traps. Yet soon this began to chafe him; and so, gripping the hilt of his sword, he took a step forward and entered.
It took a moment for his cold blue eyes to regain their sight within the dimly lit chamber, but as his vision waxed, the DoomBringer perceived a figure perched on the high throne at the great hall’s far end. The being was draped all in white, and his face was hidden behind a featureless black mask. Must all men who vex me wear masks? thought Dragan, recalling the lich Poltoros. He didn’t consider how many men he’d vexed in his past while donning his own.
“Name yourself!” he spoke, holding his position by the entrance. “Friend or foe?”
“Neither,” came the answer reverberating down the length of the hall. The voice was clear and loud as the tolling of a bell. And as ominous.
The response irritated Dragan. His fist clinched tighter around the hilt of his sword. “Who’s summoned me here? And why?”
“Come, Master of Doom, and know.”
Dragan couldn’t tell from the distance whether the resonating voice actually belonged to the stranger before him or if it’d emanated instead from elsewhere in the chamber. The masked man remained motionless with his gloved hands on the throne’s armrests, and his white raiment fell in a pool before him on the dais. The light from a few score candles illuminated the area directly about the throne, yet it was too weak to reach out and reveal the hall’s breadth. Two columns of opposing statues set atop tall stone pedestals ran lengthwise from door to throne: full-scale likenesses of all the mage-kings of ages past. Only darkness lay behind them.
“What beasts lurk in the shadows for me this time, Tiramas?” said Dragan. “What set of eyes do you peer at me from?”
“Approach and learn the truth of yourself,” replied the voice.
For a moment Saedus’ son turned to peer back through the open door to the desert outside…then he started forward again, closing the gap to his summoner. As the statues nearest the throne became visible, he began to recognize some of them from their portraits in Poltoros’ Book of Kings, and his thoughts raced back to Vendhane’s chamber in Addrindain where he’d once looked upon much the same. Each pedestal held a stone placard with its king’s words inscribed.
There was Nal’tanos Crimlore, the Golden King, with his square-cut jaw and shrewd gaze. He held a sword in one hand and an open book in the other. His words read: Let Justice be Done, Lest the Heavens Fall.
There was Tethramel Davin, the Green King, his legs metamorphosing into a tree trunk whose roots spread atop the stone pedestal. He wore a great beard on his face, and his hand gripped a gnarled staff. Return to the Earth were his words.
And there was the Blue King, Orkayl Deigan, called the Chronomancer. His heavy eyelids drooped beneath bushy brows, and his hooked nose protruded above a wispy beard that fell to his belly. An hourglass rested in the cup of his upturned palms. His words read: All Things Doth Time Conquer.
The last two statues were the Red King and, unexpectedly, the White King. Dragan wondered how the latter had come to be. Tiramas Vendhane had dwelt in Addrindain—never in Dolras, at least to his knowledge—and Rasyrethra had withered long ago with the death of Ûmrothsul Aldrotherin. Their words read: The Fury is the Fire and Hearken to my Call.
Here the GrimHelm stopped, some twenty feet before the throne. “I traveled many leagues to reach this place,” he began again, “…and now that I’m here, I rue it. So give me your tricks or your words, Vendhane—or whoever you are—but either way, be quick about it!”
The man seated on the throne gave no response; yet in place of one, Dragan caught movement from the corner of his eye. In one fluid motion he unsheathed his blade and set its tip between himself and the White King’s statue…then took an involuntary step back as he watched the marble become a substrate to some new and ever-shifting presence. Ethereality swathed the figure like mist hanging over a lake at dawn, yet this vapor flowed over the cold, white surfaces of the stone, vanishing in places and materializing in others. At the statue’s head it coalesced into a face: a living phantasm overlaying the inanimate guise of the marble beneath. And set within that face…those eyes…
Late is your arrival, son of Saedus, the words of Vendhane’s spirit crashed into the DoomBringer’s unguarded mind. The telepathic invasion was so abrupt and forceful that Dragan flinched and nearly dropped his weapon. Yet before he could level the blade again on the specter he faced, he saw another statue flash awake behind—not unlike a candlewick bursting into flame—causing him to spin about on…
Ûmrothsul Aldrotherin himself. And coarse is your impudent tongue! You’ve not earned the privilege to make demands of us. Not yet!
Perhaps never. The Blue King was slowly forming beside the Red. The hour of your ascension is fleeting, child. Another seeks to corrupt the line. To take your rightful place.
Dragan was suddenly aware that all the statues within view had awakened, though at present only these three had permeated his thoughts. The pause after the Chronomancer’s words lingered now…for so long that Dragan wondered if he might be imagining things. Yet there were the forms hovering before him. They were waiting for him to speak. Allowing him time to recover from shock.
“My right to what?” he responded at last. “This broken throne? I left one of those behind in Addrindain. And who’s the man to keep it from me, should the seat be my desire? This masked enchanter dawdling upon it?” Only after he’d spit this out did he realize it was an answer to words unspoken aloud—but the man of flesh before him didn’t question the outburst. Had he heard the voices as well?
Have you forgotten my words to you in Braured? returned Tiramas after a briefer pause than the last. No, Erroth is my servant: one whose term has lingered well beyond its time. You may question him when we’re done. For now, you need know only that he dons the white to show his current allegiance…yet he hides behind the faceless mask until his identity can be reborn under a new master. And the color of that master is black…
Do you take me for an idiot? Dragan forced a telepathic response. This servant, as you call him, hid his face from me because he knew I’d not come otherwise. Clearly he holds some power of his own, yet I’m no stranger to magic. Considering the last piece further, Dragan returned his eyes to the throne and spoke again aloud: “How do I know this isn’t just some parlor trick of yours, wizard? What do you want with me? A chance to finish what the real Vendhane could not?”
As I said, slayer: you are not a King yet.Not until you break free of your mother’s grasp can you ascend. Aldrotherin got straight back to his point with these words, glossing over the end of Dragan’s reply about tricks and ulterior motives as if the hero were a toddler speaking gibberish. It’s she who would usurp your power, just as she’s leeched from others in the past. You know of what I speak.
The servant on the throne remained mute, and so Dragan decided to give up speaking directly to him. If all these distinct voices were indeed coming from the stranger, he wasn’t only a wizard but also a talented impressionist. Dragan was beginning to doubt his initial skepticism. Blood and bones. Yes, I know of what you speak. She would’ve hidden all of it from me, no doubt, could she have managed it—but I had to be told enough to play my part. He turned his face and thoughts then from the Red King to the White. You, Vendhane…and the Beast of Thirannon…and the very soul of the Daemon herself, for all I know—or care to understand. It takes more than a hedge witch’s potions to bring a mutilated corpse back to life and to summon up devils from the forest depths and the bowels of the earth. But if this is truly your spirit, Tiramas, reaching out to me from beyond, then tell me this: why would you aid me? Mother may have ordered it, but it was my hand that took your life…
Because your destiny is more important than any petty revenge. A new voice had joined the others now: cold, emotionless, but laden with power. Its tone sounded just as Dragan remembered Poltoros delivering it to him from the Book of Kings, all those years ago. The voice of the Golden King, Nal’tanos Crimlore. Tiramas knew his reign was drawing to an end, Dragan, before you ever entered his domain; and it was your hand that claimed the succession—exactly as it was meant to be. The line of Kings is not governed by good or evil. Some of us were more righteous than others in life, it’s true, but all of us were our own masters. What is your excuse?
The mere presence of his boyhood idol was enough to leave Dragan for the moment speechless—never mind Crimlore’s affirmation of his preordainment as mankind’s next mage-king. The Golden King, it was recorded, did not lie. And yet…something wasn’t adding up. My excuse? You see many things, Kings of old, so surely you know the true source of my power. Mother gifted it to me—so why would she want it back now, when she could’ve recalled it so many times before? Little time’s passed since I cast it down at her feet. If she wanted me dead, why didn’t she do it then and there? She could’ve sent her pet Baeldrin to my room while I sat helpless, pondering the course of my wretched life…
Helpless? This was Vendhane again. Far from it. We indeed know the source of your power, warrior—yet until today you did not. That breastplate you wear, while of impeccable craftsmanship, holds no magic of its own. You have been sorely deceived.
“What?” Dragan cried out as he stumbled, nearly crashing into the nearest pedestal before he regained control of his limbs. Instinctively he raised his blade and waved it as if warding off an impending blow from nowhere—and his other hand darted to his chest, clutching at the armor to ensure it was still there. “You lie! It can’t be…” Why would she… No! The curse…
Silent until now, the Green King chose this point to intercede. Not a curse, but rather the boast of an ancient armorer whose peerless skills followed him to the grave. A man of my time, he was. All things were brighter in those days.
No. Dragan slowly shook his head. I don’t believe it. All this is but a ruse. You would have me lay down my defense, then unleash your minions upon me…
Awaken, fool! boomed the Red King’s voice. Your witch-mother communes with spirits from the underworld. She knows your fate as well as we do!
She always knew this day would come, added Orkayl Deigan. The day when your eyes would be opened. She used the armor as a leash to hold on to you for as long as she could…to channel your growing power to further her own gains. Yet now she’s made her final move, and she discards all tools—all rivals—no longer needed. Your father is dead. Your half-brother deposed. The Mardothans have been abandoned as fodder in the north. And now that you’ve completed your final task…
Once more Dragan felt his knees weaken. He set the tip of his sword upon the floor, leaning upon the hilt as if it were a crutch. They…murdered Acomalath? They said he wouldn’t be harmed…that he’d only be forced to retire to his estate. Now Baeldrin’s last words to him stung as they ran back through his head: ”You’ve no idea what it takes to turn the gears of the world…"
Your power lies within you, said the White King, drawing the hero’s gaze once more to the specter’s haunting eyes. It’s been there since the day you laid me low. Yet the sources that fuel your mother’s devilry are fast running dry, and her hold on you is slipping. She’ll take your life now, if she can, then harvest your blood as she did mine. But if she succeeds in this, she’ll not stop there. She will raise you from the dead. Bind you forever to her will!
The image of Poltoros’ disjointed corpse suddenly flashed in Dragan’s mind; then, just like that, something snapped in him. His time here was done. What more could the voices reveal to him if he stayed on another hour—another day, another year—that could set him any clearer down the path to what he must do. He felt his grip tighten on his sword’s hilt. His strength was returned, and now it pulsed through his limbs with the beating of a raging heart. The bitch shall die! he shouted at the unwanted guests in his head, desiring them banished to the abyss from which they’d come. Then, without so much as a parting word, he spun on his heels and began storming from the hall.
“Wait!” cried Erroth, startled by Dragan’s sudden retreat. Leaning forward, he reached out with an open hand—as if he could pull his would-be master back with it.
But the Master of Doom kept on walking until he reached the doors…then he was gone.
The servant dropped his head and hand and fell back into silence.