Well, there was a certain poetic justice to it. Eth had just been thinking to himself that the purple hills and pine-clustered vales of Valezrel were entirely too restful, that his muscles itched from the days of quiet riding. Then around the bend his horse came nearly nuzzle-to-nuzzle with a black thoroughbred of proudest bearing, and aback him a man and woman riding double. Perhaps it was the dangerous quickness with which the man fingered his sword hilt, perhaps the rigid discomfiture of the woman’s posture, but Eth knew by a sort of instinct that this was heading to a fight.
The man was a warlord or prince if the fineness of his armor told a true story. Silvered mail and breastplate, accented by cape and sleeves and trousers all scarlet, and his helm displayed a trio of great plumes of the same. Jewels glinted from the hilt of his tulwar, but his expression was black, as black as his great curly beard.
His horse was a warhorse, barded and caparisoned to parade on the field of battle.
And the lady was…a lady. Bedecked in flowing silks more fitting to the court than the trail, her dark hair caught up in an elaborate maze of golden thread and peacock feathers, and a diaphanous veil concealing the lower portion of her face, so that the only feature she really displayed was her bright leonine eyes.
The horses danced back a step from one another, and the warlord uttered a syllable of disdain, but the lady was quickest to speak.
Her Valiya was high and elegant.
“Sir!” she said to Eth, tensing and casting an urgent glance to the man who sat behind her, half encircling her waist with the arm that held the reigns. “You are an outlander and unknown to me, but I see that you are a warrior.”
For Eth had instantly put a hand on his own sword as well when these others had suddenly appeared.
“So I beg of you: if you hold to any creed that promises aid to women in affliction, do not pass me by.”
Eth looked them both over again. His weather-etched face gave no sign of his thoughts
“Outlander,” the warlord said, removing his hand from his swordhilt with a confident gesture, while with the other he drew the lady in more tightly, “forgive the girl. She has spoken out of turn. There is nothing here to concern one such as yourself. Withdraw a pace, and we will be on our way.”
Both displayed surprise when Eth’s Valiya was as rich and fluent as their own.
“I have been implored, and certainly can’t stand aside now. Lady, you are being held against your will by this companion?”
“Outlander,” the warlord said, and his tone remained arrogant, but decorated now with the delicate touches of refined malice. “I have asked you to withdraw out of decorum and respect for matters that are not yours. Now I advise you to do so for your own safety. I am not a man to be trifled with…” and here gentleness and dignity resumed their place “…but I follow the dictums of the Five, and so I’m loathe to strike an elder, even provoked as I am by your discourtesy.”
Eth had no particular taste for the flourishes of cultured grandiosity. By appearance this fellow was perhaps thirty years his junior, and his armor was far superior. It didn’t seem dishonorable, then, if Eth should strike the first blow.
He hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to unsheathe Fayerath.
From the very first moment his right hand had made the threatening movement, soothing the grip of the longsword at his back. His left hand had made the quieter, more important movement: retrieving from an obscure pouch a little packet and untwisting its middle so the alchemical ingredients in each half would mix. It amounted to an explosive of little real power; a loud bang and some noxious smoke, that was all. Horses hated it.
He hurled it at the feet of the proud black stallion, and the effect was everything desired. The great warhorse reared in sudden panic, tossing his master back. Eth’s faithful mount, well accustomed to her master’s devices, remained under his control. He spurred her forward at a rush, through the lingering wisps of acrid smoke, and got an arm about the lady as she fell.
Eth wheeled about and slid her down to the ground.
Then he dismounted and closed on the fallen enemy.
But the warlord, despite being taken by surprise, proved too seasoned a fighter to stay down. His armor though heavy was so well made that it hindered him little. By the time Eth reached him he’d regained his feet and had bare steel in hand.
Eth had nothing in hand, and for armor a bizarre hauberk of leather plates, accented with a few very large scales. But beneath this accoutrement could be discerned a musculature that in youth had been enormous, rippling, and now in later years had hardened into a gnarled massiveness like some ancient oak.
Whether or not he could have mastered this young warrior in pitted strength would not be proven. Eth had another advantage: nearly five decades’ experience as a fighting man. The warlord’s strikes, quick and clever in their own right, were forecast to him as thoroughly as if he’d possessed some arcane clairvoyance.
He dodged two sweeps of the sword, then found his chance in a thrust. Slipping underneath, he disarmed the red warrior, then swept his legs and plunged him into unconsciousness with a precise strike.
Eth rose and shifted experimentally. He felt no hurts.
“Is he dead?”
“No,” he said. The lady stood beside his horse, a hand on the reigns. “Are you alright?”
“Yes. Are you just going to leave him there?”
“I think so.” Eth retrieved the warlord’s sword, then came and gently took the reins from the lady, whose voice and pensive posture told what her veil still hid. “I’m sorry if that troubles you. I fought him for you because on the balance that seemed the right, but for all I know he was holding you with good cause.”
She met his eyes a moment, then inclined her head.
“Well enough, brave outlander. I thank you.”
“We’ll take his horse and his sword for security.”
So saying, they gathered in the great black charger, over whom Eth gained mastery quickly enough. He set the lady on the saddle.
“Very well. And may I know the name of my rescuer?”
“Hm.” Eth smiled a little. “Of all the names I’ve had, the one I’ve come to use most is Ethriel. Eth will do.”
“My lord Eth, I am called Triona, and I am grateful for your assistance.”
Eth mounted, and drew his horse up beside her. At his lead they began to trot on down the path in the way Eth had been going.
“My journey takes me on South from here, and it’s not an urgent one. I’ll see you safely to Kalash before we part ways, if my further protection is acceptable.”
“Your protection,” she said, “is most welcome. But I am not going to Kalash.”
“I wasn’t under the impression that you were going anywhere of your own design.”
“No, perhaps not. But now that I’m free I can once again pursue the goal my treacherous warrior swore to escort me towards, before he decided to pursue his own ends.”
“In Valezrel a woman’s consent is not necessary for marriage if she has no man to stand up for her. I was staying awhile in Kalash when one of the nobles selected me for a likely bride. In the gilded cage of his palace I met that crimson knight, Bered-Sul, whose honor and protection I invoked. Indeed, he brought me safely from the nobleman’s grasp, but once outside Kalash I discovered that I had only traded one would-be husband – or shall I simply say master? – for another.”
“I had assumed something of the like,” Eth said. He possessed a modest familiarity with the customs of Valezrel and the other peninsular kingdoms. “But I meant to ask, tell me where it is you were going.”
“If what I say has any meaning to you, you will laugh.”
“I am going to the Tower of Jadraign.”
Eth knew the name.
He didn’t laugh.
“The Tower of Jadraign.” Intonation conveyed what he thought about that destination more than many words could have.
“It is not a well-trod way, but I have certain information about the best approach,” she said. “By the North road it would be three days’ ride from here; by the hidden way that has been revealed to me that time will be greatly shortened.
“I am going to the Tower of Jadraign, and there if even the hundredth part of the tales is true awaits a fabulous wealth of gold and treasures. If you will accompany me, my lord Eth, you shall have your pick of the treasures, as much gold as you can carry”
“I’ve no need of gold,” Eth said. Yet again, his voice told the longer tale.
“I’m sorry.” She was very quiet now. “That was wrong of me. I should have discerned your company wasn’t to be bought with petty treasures…but I think,” and here her speech gained a little more liveliness, a little mischievousness even, “you will come with me anyhow.”
“Yes. I am going to the Tower of Jadraign, and after rescuing me from the hands of the crimson warrior, you will certainly not let me face this danger alone.
II. The Legend of the Tower
“Where are you from, lord Eth? What is your tale?”
They’d stopped for a rest by a little spring, well off the frequented ways. Triona had indeed brought them to the passable remains of some ancient road that plied the very tops of the ridges, turning at the steepest places into stairs carved from the living rock. Springs such as the one at which they now reposed were scattered every few miles as if by design, and surrounded by the lingering remains of overgrown marble porticos.
“I don’t know where I’m from anymore,” he said. “I’ve been in many places, lived in many places. This is my third excursion into the peninsula; the first was nigh thirty years ago. Well. I was born far to the North and far to the East in a kingdom by the sea, which was called Path-Arden. It doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Are…were…all the people of that country so fair-skinned?”
“Yes,” he said, wondering how that might seem to a lady with the olive complexion of the great peninsula. “Yes, and most have flaxen hair; some so pale it is almost white even from childhood, and they are counted especially blessed.”
While they talked, Triona had removed her veil and unbound her hair so that it fanned a dark curtain reaching to the small of her back. Eth watched her, and marked to himself her unblemished youth, and her beauty.
And though he didn’t say anything, she noticed.
“I do not think you find me repulsive, my lord Ethriel.” There was that gently teasing tone again. “You are noble, but what others would seize is yours by privilege. According to the chivalry of the nobles of Kalash, since you rescued me when I called on you, you have become my champion. And for my champion I am bound to answer favorably if you ask for my hand.”
“Mm. Triona, you are a flower in the springtime of youth, and a rare flower indeed, exceptional in loveliness. But the difference between our ages is too great for me to be so bold as to ask for your hand.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” she said.
Silence between them.
Eth broke it.
“Therein lies a conundrum: here we have a beauty in the springtime of youth, who wishes for some reason to rush headlong to a certain death. Why, Triona? Yes, I’ve heard of this Tower of Jadraign.”
“What have you heard?” she was looking away from him now, watching her reflection in the pool of the spring, but with a poised attentiveness whose intensity he could almost feel.
“Many and unreliable though they are, the stories share that the tower was built a thousand years ago, one of two stronghold towers held by sisters. They gave their names to the towers: this one Jadraign, and the other sorceress Jacelys.”
“Jacelyth,” Triona said.
“Jacelyth. The stories also have in common that these sisters were witches, whose power and evil alike were very great. They stood among the chief rivals of the Mage King Ammandion, and were by him destroyed. Most importantly, their ruined strongholds – of which really only the Tower of Jadraign remains – are said to be cursed, and have been the death of countless adventurers who came to them looking for plunder.”
Her countenance had turned wistful, almost sorrowful as he spoke, though she tried to cover it with a smile.
“The stories do not always tell things as they are,” she said.
“No. But on this I would trust them. It is death for you to seek out this fortress of doom.”
“It is not certain death,” she said. “There is a part of my story you do not yet know. I have gained possession of a secret scroll, on which I discovered an account of the way that brought us here, and much more. The scroll described the passwords that will nullify the magical defenses the sorceress placed to guard her treasures. I have been given the way in.”
“Show me the scroll.”
She cocked her head and met him forcefully with those big eyes. “The scroll contained other secrets beyond my comprehension, but filled with terror and foreboding. After I had memorized the magical keys, I burned the scroll so that its dark secrets would be lost forever. But here,” and she drew from a finger on her right hand an elaborate golden ring, shaped like twisting vines and set with four spherical rubies. “This ring was about the middle of the scroll. Touch it, and you will know that I am telling the truth.”
Eth thought for a moment, then reached out. He held his fingers near the ring, but didn’t touch it quite. It was enough. He’d had experience with enchanted artifacts, and he could sense a terrible power.
“That’s something,” he said. “But what if you meet a threat not of the sorceress’ creation, something left over from the war with Ammandion or such?”
“Then it will be good that I have you with me.” Oh, that smile.
“Maybe. But still, I want to know why. Why chance it? Are you so desirous of wealth? It would have been much simpler to become a nobleman’s wife.”
“No. I want no wealth for myself.” She spoke with the same conviction by which Eth had rejected her offer of treasure. “There is another legend that I believe to be true. The sorceress Jadraign had at her tower a potent relic from the age of wonders, a crystal of effulgent azure. Those who bathed at length in its radiance are healed of both sickness and sorrow.”
“This legend I haven’t heard.”
“It is true.”
“You look to be in well health.”
III. By Rhyme and Ring
The next day as they came over a cresting rise Eth caught his first glimpse of the tower in the distance, a pale streak of blue out above the trees. At each peak after that when the way was clear they saw it in greater and greater detail: tall and slender and still graceful after so many years, an odd sentinel in the untamed land.
Their road swept down through a crescent valley which followed the decline of a narrow river, then up hard on the mountainside, a long stair with four curving flights. They came under an old stone archway, and on the other side found themselves looking down on the Tower of Jadraign.
That was as much as he let his awe escape verbally, but the sight was impressive even in a state of decay. The central tower which they had seen from afar claimed his admiration for its sheer size and elegant complexity of ornate stonework, balconies and arched windows and the spire above the highest patinaed dome.
Surrounding the tower lay a wide paved courtyard and the devastated remains of several buildings, and all encircled by a high wall and a moat so deep as to be almost a chasm.
“Well?” Triona asked, after they had stood in silence a time.
“Well, I suppose we’d best go and see. I don’t want to be in there after sundown.”
The road had faded away almost at once after they passed that viewing space, and they had to pick their way down a brushy slope before they found the path which led right up to the bridge across the moat.
Here Eth stopped.
For head of the delicate stone bridge was flanked by a pair of great statues, twelve feet tall, one portraying a man and the other a woman, and each having six arms that held swords in martial pose. Unlike the decorative stonework of the latticed bridge, these statues had not suffered any diminution of their crisp lines over the weathering years.
“Did your scroll tell you anything about these guardian statues?” he asked.
“The wearer of this ring – and her companions – may pass safely.”
“Hm.” It might have been a trick of the light, but Eth thought the stones on the ring were shedding an unnatural luminescence.
But pass they did, and the statues remained still as stone. For all its slenderness of support the bridge bore them without groan, and they came up before the gates of the Tower of Jadraign.
Eth glanced down into the moat, and saw far below that it was not dry as he had supposed, but held a blue liquid that bubbled sluggishly. The color was lovely, but something about it turned his stomach. He wondered how many adventurers, unable to satisfy the great stone guardians, had discovered the nature of that dread ichor.
At the doors Eth felt an unexpected amazement, for he recognized the workmanship. Grey stone ribbed with lines of jade, exquisitely carved and overlaid with gold and ivory, all displaying in stark relief a picture of fiery dawn above a wooded plain.
They dismounted, and he came close to examine the work in detail.
“This is a very ancient thing; it’s the craftsmanship of the elder High Kingdom of the distant West. Jadraign must have imported the doors from some ruin in that region; I would imagine the protection they conferred upon her wall were beyond anything the magic of this age could give.”
“And yet she was defeated,” Triona said quietly.
“Walls don’t defend against everything.”
“No. They do not.”
But Triona looked up to the top of the gates, and she shook back her hair which had been allowed to hang free since that time at the spring the day before, and lifting up her voice she sang.
It was a sweet lyric, the rhyme of another aeon and a forgotten tongue, and carried on her golden voice it rang all about those ancient walls, and echoed down into the murky fissure.
With a shuddering of the dust of years, with a long groan of decrepit slumber cast off, the doors swung in and welcomed them to the forsaken citadel.
They walked among the cracked flagstones and scattered debris. On either side the burned-out skeletons of buildings looked at them with hollow windows like gaping eyes.
“Don’t go near the trees,” Triona told him, gesturing the gaunt and leafless oaks that interspersed the courtyard. “The lyric I sang at the gate will keep them quiescent for a time…as long as we don’t get too close.”
“According to the scroll,” Eth said. He watched to see how she would answer.
“According to the scroll.”
They were about halfway across the courtyard when the tremors began.
“What was that?”
“Stop,” Eth said. He put a hand on her arm.
The courtyard rolled beneath them as though made of canvass. A great rumble emanated from below, and cracks started to appear in the stones.
Suddenly a crevasse knifed open and Eth only just yanked Triona from falling in. Openings yawned on this side and that, and from the depths arose a sulpherous ocher vapor that enveloped them like a cloud.
Vague shadows moved in the mist.
Eth saw a clawed hand inching its way up from the nearest crevasse.
“Do you know anything about this?!”
Triona appeared to be in urgent concentration, searching her memory.
Eth stepped between her and that questing hand, which now found purchase on the lip of the flagstones, but he kept panning the fog with his gaze, watching the shadows appearing and receding. Strange moans had begun to rise all about them.
But above the macabre din lilted Triona’s song in astral brilliancy, bearing high another lyric against the awakened malison. Sweet, sweet her song, roseate rhyme, rising, falling, and all the foul groans fell silent. The mist cleared as though borne away by an ethereal wind that made no impression on the two adventurers.
When Eth looked down he saw only cracks where crevasses had been, and the clawed lurkers had apparently returned to their stygian depths.
“That was not,” Triona admitted, “exactly what the scroll described.” She let out a long breath.
Eth kept back what he thought of that.
He led them on to the base of the tower, whose structure had survived the years largely intact somehow. A heavy iron door barred their way.
Triona lifted the hand that held the ruby ring, and in response to her beckoning gesture the noise of bolts being drawn came from the other side, and the door opened a crack. Cautiously Eth pushed, and it swung wide.
He felt Triona’s hand on his own.
“Let me go first,” she said.
“I don’t think – ”
“The ring will protect us from any guardians who may wait; but I’d better go first.”
Grudgingly he stepped back.
The very second room they came to was a long hall lined with suits of armor, each clasping a greatsword in both hands. Eth noticed that the rubies in the ring were glowing like fire while they walked past the armors, and felt glad indeed they had it.
Through chambers of time-eaten grandeur and up deteriorating stairs they went. It was a tour into ancient abandonment, and quite bizarre to Eth’s eyes. In all the years the tower had obviously not been plundered, for valuable weapons and works of sculpture decorated the rooms, and on little tables he saw delicate vessels of glass and silver and finely-wrought gold. But disuse had taken its toll, and dust and degradation and the dominion of spiders marked all things.
But the higher they progressed the better condition everything appeared to be in. The curtains and woven rugs on the first level had been withered threads, but as they ascended the third stair he found a table draped with purple cloth nearly unblemished by time’s ravages.
Triona led the way with a confident step, evidently sure of her path and of the ring’s protection. Gallery and hall and library they passed through, and stair after stair they climbed, until they neared the very top of the tower.
Opening an unassuming oaken door, they came face to face with a vision out of atramentous nightmare. Across a room mostly void of furniture or decoration, by the foot of an ascending circular stair stood an unhallowed monstrosity. It had been a human once, but some eldritch abomination had been worked upon him to twist and torture the body, to lengthen the arms and neck and fingers, to mottle the flesh and cause spines of bone to jut out like quills. A partial suit of black armor accentuated rather than hid the monstrous mutilations.
All along its osseous arms and to the black pauldrons on its shoulders the infernal guardian glowed with tongues of living flame. It wore a burning cowl that buried its skull in shadow, but Eth sensed a diabolical intelligence lurking where a man’s eyes would be. In its hands the guardian held a heavy scimitar, whose blade also swam with fire.
By instinct Eth pushed Triona back out of harm’s way, but just as readily she slipped back in front of him.
And in that instant two streams of flame shot out from the guardian’s eyes to scorch them where they stood. But when the fires met Triona’s outstretched hand and the ruby ring thereon, they began to collect and spiral about, and like a whirlpool they descended into the ring. The room had gone red with flickering conflagration, then all at once it was returned to normal and even the incandescence that had previously adorned the guardian was extinguished.
“Good enough!” Eth said, and once again interposed himself between the lady and the diabolical horror.
Quick as a tiger he drew Fayerath, and the silver blade flashed like lightning. Eth’s old muscles were beginning to slow down these days, but he was still quicker than most men in their prime. In his travels to the far corners of the continent he’d learned a great many tricks to use in a fight: tricks of the mind, and distractions, and the use of all manner of poisons and alchemical compounds. None of that would be of any use here. Against this necromantic adversary he had only his skill with a blade. And he had Fayerath, the silver sword of the High Kingdom, the blade against the shadow. It would win him clear passage against any sorceries fortifying the bones of this desecration, he was sure.
Their weapons clashed in a flurry of blows, and as the battle met Eth felt a glowing sensation spreading down his sword arm, through his chest, into his body, that feeling he both hated and loved. Fayerath longed to be used, and infected its bearer with such delight in the battle and such vigor and unshakable courage; but Fayerath longed to be used, and it took a will to master the sword that was itself so masterful.
He needed every ounce of vigor and courage for this battle. The guardian pursued him with terrible speed, raining blow upon blow, unflinching, untiring, deadly. When they stood with swords locked and straining the revenant leaned in, his funereal breath causing the warrior’s heart to nearly freeze with horror.
Eth kicked his enemy back and went on the offensive. He’d realized from the first that time was on his enemy’s side. A creature livened by arcane energies was likely to feel neither exertion nor pain; Eth could feel both. If victory was to be had it would be swift.
But the challenge was to identify a weakness. The guardian’s swordmanship was excellent, its strength unnatural, its tactics brutal. A well-aimed thrust to the chest accomplished nothing, even with the silvered blade of Fayerath.
In the Pardivah of the east and in the murky swamps of the west, among the northern dragons or the mormolykei of the deep south, Eth had never met a foe that could survive long without its head. He watched the guardian’s attack, sought his opening, and gave a powerful slash.
It turned out the guardian was no exception to the rule.
IV. In the Highest Chamber
Eth straightened, and drew a long draught of air. Too much for the old bones. By a concerted act of will he sheathed Fayerath.
When he looked up, Triona was mounting the far stair, her movements delicate as if in reverie.
“Wait,” he said, but she went on, and he hastened to follow.
The stair curved almost a full revolution before reaching a little landing, with a window opposite looking down on the courtyard so very far below. Triona stood on the landing, utterly still, not looking towards him. It was suddenly as if the whole world had stopped and the only noise he heard was his own breathing.
“I lied to you, Eth.”
“About which part?” he said easily, “the crystal of healing you’re supposed to have come here for, or your identity?”
“Both, I’m afraid…though neither very well, it would seem.” That hint of laughter was back, but only a hint. Something in her entire posture and conveyance remained entirely momentous.
“There is no healing crystal,” he said.
“No, but I do not think you ever believed very much that there was. I felt rushed in weaving my story, I was clumsy. Your chivalry would have been enough to lean on.”
“You’re Jadraign,” he said. “Only the sorceress herself would have known the defenses and their keys so well. That bit about the scroll was more clumsily fabricated than the idea of the crystal.”
“Maybe. But you’re wrong, Ethriel. There was one other who knew the defenses thoroughly. I am Jacelyth. That is Jadraign.”
With a wave of her ring hand the door swung open, and she pointed into the room beyond, the highest chamber of the tower.
Eth followed her invitation and went in. He judged this chamber to be the root of the tower’s preservation, for all the windows remained intact, and the chairs and table, the carpets and embroidered hangings kept their unmoldered grace. In the center of the room lay a canopied dais laden with cushions, and behind its translucent curtains he could discern the reclining form of a young woman. But as he neared the couch Eth came up against a sudden force. He strained one arm forward experimentally, but it was as though an invisible wall cut across the room.
Strange words slithered from behind him; Triona’s – or rather, Jacelyth’s – words, foreign and ancient words, magical words, but not the golden lyrics of before. Those had been passwords to which the long-lain enchantments responded. These syllables were deeper, more ponderous, more profound, the weaving of a magic in their own right. They did not echo about the room nor rumble; they glided, they glissaded, and quietly did their work.
The unseen barrier vanished in a rush of wind that shattered the windows, sending their crystalline shards down into the courtyards as a glittering rainfall.
“Oh,” Jacelyth said. “That was my second to last.”
Her voice was different. Eth turned.
In the lady before him he beheld some resemblance to the Triona of the past days, but aged centuries. She was wilted and bent, her hair thin strands of silver, her face wrinkled, her eyes…still large and leonine, but hidden by sagging lids.
“Well, here I am,” she said, stepping up to join him.
“That was the greatest hint that something was amiss with you, Jacelyth. No face except one created by magic could be so beautiful.”
“It was my real face…so very long ago. You saw the real me, my lord Eth. You saw me as I was in my flowering youth. But is not Jadraign even lovelier than I ever was?”
She pulled back the veil that concealed the dais, and Eth beheld the lady reposing senseless there. The resemblance to her sister was clear. And even after all these years thus ensorcelled, her cheeks held the warm flush of life, and her eyelids rested heavy in slumbering amity.
“She reminds me of my granddaughter,” Eth said.
“My lord Ethriel, I have fast become so fond of you. Alas, you were right yesterday when you said the difference in our ages was too great. I am much too old for you.”
“But I thank you,” she continued. “The more I think on it, the more I just wish I’d told you the truth from the start. You would have come. I needed someone to stand against the dread guardian; after all these years searching for the final spell, I had only two left. The one that had been giving me my youth back was necessary for strength up to this point…undone now undoing the barrier of timeless stasis. One left. That means much to a magician. And if…and when I use my last spell, do you know what will happen?”
“Yes,” he said softly.
“Good.” She sighed a long sigh. “Good. Now you are here in the lofty height of the Tower of Jadraign, and you shall know the truth twisted by tale upon tale. Ammandion did this to her: the timeless sepulcher, the unfathomable depths of slumber. A prison where she would be safe and captive until the death of time. And she submitted to it willingly!...to protect me.
“Ammandion scorned her treasuries and left her defenses unbroken. His victory was already complete. But he added to all these barriers a new guardian, fashioned by forbidden arts from the mortified remains of Jadraign’s own champion. Ah. It would not have kept me away even twenty years ago. Oh, sister, how long it has taken me to find the right spell. But I have found it. I walked the long road…
“Evil witches, they say of us? I might have had my flaws – though none so foul as the tales tell – but Jadraign was a white rose. And Ammandion? That such a soulless monster should sit on the Carnelian Throne and wear the crown of Bash-Tuleth! Well, there will be a day for the wicked. And for the righteous, too.
“Ethriel,” she looked into his eyes, “I have said my piece. Now I stand on the shore before embarking on the journey that all the living must one day take. You have been twice faithful to me, and with little enough faith in return. A gift for you before I sail.”
She gave to him her ring, whose powers had so lately been on display. Without a word he took it, and bending, kissed her hand.
“Ah,” Jacelyth sighed, “what might have been. Where were you, mm, nine hundred and ninety-three years ago?”
She laughed, and in spite of himself, Eth joined in. Then the magician raised herself as straight as she could manage and closed her eyes.
The quiet words came, a potent sussuration, and with them the last of herself. She didn’t speak the final sibilants, she breathed them, and doing so crumpled.
Eth caught her in his arms, sensing at once that the weight he held was lifeless. He set her down gently.
With a gasp like the first flutter of a butterfly’s wings, Jadraign opened her eyes.
©January, 2016 Joshua Steely
Joshua Steely's story "The Garden Arch" appeared in Niteblade, and he has also had stories accepted by Havok and Mad Scientists Journal. This is his first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.