Began Typing: 6.19.09

Chapter Five

The Black King was not happy.

His morning had begun with a messenger bursting through his door with urgent news. The King told him to hold that thought, and helped by pinning it to his chest with a spear. And to top it all off, he had a meeting with the Shadow in a matter of minutes.

Not to mention what had happened the night before. The first one who did mention it would never mention anything again.

The King pressed two pale fingers to his tattooed forehead. He filled his entire throne with two hundred-plus pounds of muscle. His build was rare among people of his kind, but then he had always thrived off attention.

The throne room was unadorned. In the one day they had been there after the escape, the servants had managed to clear away the shattered bits of elven pottery and their King's old scattered plates of armor, but time (and patience) had yet to be found concerning replacements.

The only person who had laid hands on the King had been the servant who draped him in his finest robes. They said the Shadow sought respect in every possible aspect; he said the Shadow was legend, and he would assess the need for respect as he saw it.

But fine robes he wore, all the same.

Without warning the doors to his chamber burst open. Long, rotting fingernails of the King clacked around the shaft of yet another spear, but soon he realized it was simply his second most trusted secretary, Morden. His first was lying at the foot of the sacrificial tower, a spear embedded in his torso. But the Black King could not ponder Lukkas's death, lest his fury get the better of him.

"It is time, my King," said Morden, hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword.

Wordlessly, the Black King rose off of the throne, his robes drifting eerily around his towering figure. "Speak of it to no one," he said. Raising his chin in acknowledgement, Morden sealed the door behind his master.

X-x-X-x-X

"Tell me," the Black King said to the darkness of the room as a whole, "What form of evil has gripped my city?"

He stood in a forsaken underground armory that had served as an emergency supply of weapons before the dark elves were captured. The floor comprised of smooth dirt and sand and the wall was stone. The King's skin stood out like a sickly star in the darkness.

"Speak to me!" he spat at the silence. Ahead of him, the shadows pooled and swirled ominously. It was a full minute, however, until he got a real response.

Something stirred beyond the light seeping in through the door. The Black King's fingers clenched tighter around his elven-made spear and his snarl deepened as he watched a pale grayish figure emerge in the room, close enough to detect its presence but far enough away to remain no more than a blurry shape in the shadows.

"Galothar."

The King glared venomously. "You—"

"—know your name, yes," said the Shadow. It briefly crossed the elf's mind that the so-called "Shadow" bore white skin. If that was skin, he thought. The figure continued: "I know it all, Your Majesty."

As he clutched it the spear wanted more and more to pierce that bastard Shadow; there was something about him, something that drove the elf to want to…

"You have infested our city," the King hissed. "I feel them…shadows. They haunt every stone, every—"

"I had no idea," mused the deep, clever voice, now tinged with amusement. "That the dark elf could experience such fear."

The Black King's mouth cemented into a straight line as a pause loomed. Then he said, "And you thought you knew everything."

A laugh, starting low and rasping its way up in a wicked scale, reverberated all around the elf. Galothar. No one had called him that since his mistress left him…

"These months have been long, wandering throughout the countryside until I found this place. Korgoroth, you call it? Of course. You ask why I'm here, Galothar." The white shape was looming, looming, although the Black King knew that in reality it remained the same. "Things are happening here, King. Nalraeda will not be the place King Cyril imagined it to be; it never was going to be. The powers are shifting. There are Signes—oh yes, plenty. From here on out it is simply a matter of whether or not the people will recognize them."

"Signes?" the King asked sharply.

"The powers are shifting," repeated the Shadow. "Not even the gods aren't as holy as they once were."

"Nonsense!" The dark elf butted his spear against the dirt floor. "You lie—"

"Anything is possible." There was a short pause. "I plan to take advantage of it. By so graciously accepting my presence, I have decided to reward your people with their lives…and service to me until I find no further use in it."

The Black King snapped. "Fool!" he bellowed. "You transparent fool! Liar!" In a rush of shadows, the elf felt something wrap around each of his arms and legs, something adamant and intangible at the same time. With a jerk he was lifted in the air, and he watched as the four shadow-tentacles holding him gravitated apart with a steady purpose. His teeth clenched. They stretched him until his bones felt like they were splintering and his every tendon pulled taut; he was on fire…

Then, just as his very body threatened to rent itself down the middle in a shower of innards, Galothar felt his knees graze against the floor and his arm sockets snap back in place, all without warning.

"You are dismissed," the Shadow said, though what he didn't say more or less explained all the rest.

X-x-X-x-X

"Why, in the Nine Realms of Herodeus…"

Anger simmered in Nathan like magma. He jerked violently on the reins and hissed at his horse simultaneously in order to pull to a stop. They had been tramping through creepers for the past few hours after Uncle Anthius had spotted the smoke trailing into the sky. Comparatively, today was gorgeous next to the previous one, but it did next to nothing for the Prince's mood. A full day of charging through the Farmlands, broken only by four hours of sleep, had not made for a light mood.

"The dark elves could be a crucial alliance," explained Anthius. "In the past the Royal Court has attempted negotiation with them only to be ignored or rejected. Now that they have just escaped from the light elves' prisons, they're starting again, this time on the bottom of the food change. They'll be looking for a fresh start."

Staring at his uncle's grim, severe frown set from his eyes to the tips of his stubble, Nathan supposed he could count the number of times he had seen him smile in the past month on only one hand. Not that the Prince had much room to talk. Now, like every other waking moment from then on until he found Ethen and the Blade, was not the time for merriment.

He had a kingdom to take.

Buildings black as the feathers of a raven arched around them in a frozen ballet, shining slightly in the fresh noon sun. "Then if they are what you make them to be," said the Prince, "I don't suppose they'd appreciate our breaking and entering—"

"Patience, nephew." Anthius scanned the streets around them. The ride down the slopes of the valley proved slower than he had anticipated. Hostile stares grated against the Rose Guard's dignity from all sides; it was as if each passing elf was tempted to throw themselves upon them, but somehow found restraint. The Guard tramped below low-hanging vines and branches that had sprouted around the black structures, unheeded, and it wasn't until an ensemble of armed and dangerous-looking elves passed that trouble arose.

The leader of the group wore a dark cloak draped over finely-hewn armor that whispered when he walked. He, like any other in his company, carried a specialized spear-like weapon and a venomous scowl. However, instead of a silver spearhead, his appeared golden.

Immediately the elf completed an artful flip of the spear and directed it towards Anthius. "Surround them," he muttered.

Nathan watched the lead dark elf's silver eyes with his green ones; they were almost as haunting as the shadowed buildings surrounding them. With a flick of his hand he motioned for the Guard to prepare to attack. Ever since he gained control of them they had become strangers to the concept of defense.

"Who are you?" Nathan asked the elf with the golden spear.

"I am Morden, advisor to the Black King. But I am not one to be answering questions." A storm brewed in his features. "You would dare infiltrate Korgoroth, stronghold of the dark elves, with but a dozen men?"

"Only if you would dare leave your gates unguarded."

Morden's features twisted as he said, "Where else would you suspect these men to be going?"

Silence consumed the next moment.

Then: "We did not come to fight." Rearing his horse to the edge of the throng so as to face the elf, Anthius managed to look as royal as a king. "Show me to your…Black King."

X-x-X-x-X

Hatred could be smelt yards away from the temple. It rolled outward in hot waves, washing over Nathan, greeting him like an old companion. Whatever sat inside, he knew, would not be easy to negotiate with. Beside him, his uncle seemed to reach a similar conclusion; Anthius pulled ahead to talk to the dark elf—he called himself Morden—who kept a close eye on the proceedings. Dark muttering rose between them, but Nathan wasn't in the mood to listen. Too preoccupied with visions of the Sacred Blade and Ethen, Aedris's Gateway, time seemed to wrap itself around his head and grind it down to a bloody stump. However, Anthius had been adamant in his decision to visit the elves. The Prince would have to allow him this one stop.

"Come," Anthius said to his nephew. Nathan at his guard; they were not welcome to venture further.

The temple would have been grand grand, perhaps, in its prime, but now years of abandonment had dulled any form of excellence immediately visible in its façade. It was squat and broad, with intricate designs (now considerably faded) slithering up its corners. Throughout the black marble was set, in places, soiled streaks of gold, and the doorway consisted of a sheer wall of blackness beyond a thick, wavy frame. It was through this veil of darkness that the King's advisor Morden was headed.

Nathan considered drawing his sword, but dispute, he reminded himself, was not what they had come for.

Inside the building a slight tickled flared at the back of the Prince's mind. It originated from behind a locked doorway he had long up behind him, and a moment passed before he came around to recognizing it as fear. His training had taught him to estrange himself from it, but not banish it. If used correctly, fear could prove vital in stressful events. It was a lesson Nathan had never forgotten.

The doors of the temple, previously drawn back out of sight, shut with a resonating thud. Anthius, Morden and the Prince held hteir breath for a short span of silence, then a candle lit on either side of t hem as if of its own accord. Two more flickered to life further down the wall, and two more after that. Soon the entire chamber was glowing, mellow orange luminence flashing off of the gold inlaid in the ebony floor. At the end of the hall the candles curved in an arc on a platform preceded by three stone steps. On the platform stood an elf, frozen in the thick gold webbing at his feet; whisps of dark smoke slithered affectionately around his massive robed figure.

He was beautiful. Hauntingly beautiful. There was no other word to describe him.

"King," said Anthius. Morden shot him an acid look, a consequence of speaking first. "Turn to me, now. Or must I remind you of the finer points of formal conversation?"

Air slipped through Morden's lips in a hiss, the nhis master gripped the edge of his cloak and twisted his torso around to face his visitors.

The Black King surely seemed as black as legend had painted him: the shadows cast by the candles only made his features more gaunt, tight, and altogether flawless, made his hair and eyes an even more complete shade of night. As tall and broad-shouldered as he was, Nathan took note that he was just as light-framed and agile as any of his kind. The Prince figured he could be across the room before anyone was aware of what was happening, working his petty dark magic on them. He could. However, no matter how insulted he was at Anthius's straight-forward manner, something told Nathan that the Black King felt no urge to attack. Perhaps he, too, could smell the opportunities lying thick in the air around his visitors.

"No need to show off, now," said Anthius, eyebrows low. "I know who you are."

Shooting him a curious yet malign look from his sideways stance on the altar-type platform, the elf king muttered, "Do you, now?"

Morden glanced at Nathan's uncle. Anthius did not respond, just demonstrated his sincerity with a prolonged stare at his subject.

"If you know so much about me," The Black King said, and shifted down the steps on the balls of his feet, effortless, "Then perhaps you can enlighten me"—anger bit at his words—"as to when it was, exactly, that our Gods vanished from existence?"

Anthius's chin tilted upwards slightly, and a frown alighted upon his features. "Vanished?" he said, unmoving. "Maybe. But gone from existence altogether…I'm afraid you're mistaken, elf."

A growl rippled from the depths of the king's lungs: Anthius's vague speech was irritating even Nathan.

"You know something?" The urge to attack was visible in the dark elf's every feature, but still something held him back. Nathan attempted not to move, to take in every detail of the speakers' actions. His uncle was gifted—who else could command attention so craftily?

"Something. Not much of anything," said Anthius. "We recently passed through a port city where I encountered talk of prophecy Signes. I've seen them myself."

"Impossible!" the Black King snarled. Yellowish teeth bared beneath his pale lips.

"I assure you, the source was credible enough."

Credible? Had Anthius not reported that his so-called "source" was a madman to Nathan just hours ago? The Prince's eyebrows pulled together, his sharp eyes darting like dancing emeralds.

"Cred—!" the Black King began, eyes flashing for a moment until he fluttered them shut and sucked in a deep breath. To the Prince's surprise he did not question the source. "This still says nothing about my Gods. Unless this prophecy of yours holds something valuable, of course?"

"Answers are to come," Anthius assured, "once other matters are satiated. Any trace of the gods has been difficult to find for decades. Surely any widely traveled elf would know that?"

The elf-king's face just twisted.

Anthius pressed onward with his ranting. "Ah, but of course. How long did my dearest brother, King Cyril, have you locked up? And how long before that was it that you sequestered yourself within the walls of this very city?"

"Why," the king said through gritted teeth, "have you disturbed the peace of my halls, noble?"

"As I said, there are larger matters to attend to. Well—larger at the moment." He broke his stance of scrutiny and, hand poised on sword, began to pace in a slow semicircle. The narrowness of the room only made the action more difficult. Nathan chose to stay as he was, and the Black King seemed to think similarly, tracking Anthius with only his black eyes.

"The Gods do factor into this dilemma, however. I believe that a prophecy exists, and whether you are willing to accept it or not, there is no denying the change coming in Nalraeda. Our land has been barren and starved for ages, yes. Cyril attempted to remedy that; in fact, he made it his life goal. But hear me when I say this: He was concentrating his power in an area that did not require our attention."

Sneering, the Black King said, "What do you mean?"

"I suppose you, of all people, might see my approach. We as a nation are surrounded by enemies—Valica, Firam, Ellien. The Gods' absence is wearing on the courts of our neighbors, and soon they will want answers. They will probe the Nalraedan government, attempt to grip our lands and our people in their own grasp—"

"Who's to say they will?" the elf spat, glancing warily at Morden in the corner.

Anthius had halted in his careful steps to face the king full-on by then. "People do the most drastic things under the weight of fear."

That gave the king something to ponder. Readjusting his weight, Nathan felt chagrined at being silenced for so long. He more or less understood where his uncle was steering the conversation. "We ask for you alliance. Not now, but soon. Others will seek to trick you into their schemes. We offer you the truth before you meet any deception," Nathan said, carefully averting his eyes form Anthius's.

"We will not belong to you," interjected Morden. He toyed threateningly with his spear-like weapon. As if the Prince was supposed to be scared, or something along those lines.

Anthius cut in sharply. "Alliance, he said. Not allegiance." He took in the dangerous look splashed across the Black King's features. "You cannot deny my logic, elf. Your people are broken. Building yourself back up won't come at all unless it comes with the help of a throne. Obviously your city is in a worse state than I had anticipated—"

"Not our fault," the elf-king roared.

"Oh?"

"Just yesterday our city was raided by bandits. They interrupted our sacrificial ceremonies and stole our very item of sacrifice, not to mention threw our people into chaos." Saliva flicked from his lips.

"How many?"

"What?"

"How many of these bandits joined together to create such havoc?"

The Black King's features tightened into a scowl. "Three. That we could find."

Anthius's eyebrows tugged upwards in exaggerated surprise. "Three," he said, the word dropping to the floor like small weights.

"We have taken one into custody; he is of our own kind. The other man fought like none I've seen before," the king said, apparently disgusted by his words. "And then there was a girl—"

"—taking the guise of some farm girl."

Anthius's eyebrows arched further.

"Your city was broken by…a farm girl."

"It was all very well-planned," fought the elf. Meanwhile, Morden brooded in a corner, obviously hating the event. "We have witnesses."

"This girl," Nathan piped in, "What did she look like?" Shooting his nephew a look of intense curiosity, Anthius allowed him to speak this once.

"I saw her," said Morden. "Wasn't much to look at. She had hair like wheat. I could see it even through the rain."

The king growled, "The odds were against us," but the Prince wasn't listening. He focused intently on the ground—on his acute memory of a night, just days ago. When he looked up, Anthius's eyes were boring into him.

"And you said she came to steal a sacrifice." The words slid testily from Anthius's mouth. "Anything else you know of her? Anything at all?"

Narrowing his eyes, the Black King who had previously been clutching his cloak in fury, paused for a long minute. Nobody moved.

"Nara!"

Everyone in the room froze, as if the king's shout had been a tsunami that was soon frozen over by the frosty atmosphere.

"Uncle," Natahn said severely, "we don't have time—"

Anthius silenced him with a raised hand. "What is this?" he said, grinding his teeth audibly.

Nathan's arm shot out, his fingers snapping around is uncle's wrist. In the corner, on the very edge of the altar-like space, movement had caught his eye. A subtle heap of cloth shifted slightly. Again. Suddenly, it rose, unfolding from the inside until the bloated shape of a woman was visible—bloated because of the thickly wrapped black cloth coating every inch of her body but her face and feet.

"Nara." It wasn't a call, question, or request. The Black King's eyes shone with impatience. "You've heard his nonsense—"

"There is a prophecy," the woman said, and her voice seemed to crack on every word. For the first time, the Prince probed her dark face with his eyes; the crystal blue irises leapt out form skin that was almost entirely obscured with spidery ink patterns. "Stop whining over it. There will be change."

A shocked silence pulsed through the chamber, making walls and hearts quiver.

The elf-king began, "I see. They are—"

"Yes, the girl you saw—blonde hair—will be a part of the prophecy." The blue eyes darted fleetingly to Nathan, roving cleanly around Anthius to get there. "You, Prince, are not going to like her destination."

"Destination?"

"Her goal. Let us say…while your aims might by identical, your motive could not be more contradictory," the heavily-tattooed elf murmured with a slight smirk.

Eyes flashing, Nathan stepped forward a bit, but before he could speak his uncle snagged his attention with a minute shake of the head.

"Accept his offer," Nara said conclusively. It seemed she need not urge her king to trust her. Nathan almost had the feeling she was in his head—in all of their heads. The concept felt slightly violating.

Taking the woman's assent as the king's, also, Anthius clasped his hands together and said, "In times of controversy, it is often wiser to pick a side and be unsure of what is the right path than to fight for your own side." Whirling around, he strode forward a few paces, then cast a look over his shoulder. "You wouldn't have made it."

X-x-X-x-X

What a queer sensation.

The Black King wanted with every fiber of his being to plunge his fingernails into those brooding gray eyes of the palace noble—the king's very own brother, a devil spawned from the same woman who had given birth to the man that had ruined his people. Every fiber smoldered. If given but a fraction of a second to cross the room, he could rip—tear—gouge—

And yet…the suspense the Anthius person came equipped with put a foreign edge on everything. Standing in his long-abandoned hall, surrounded by starving and shattered elves, the king thought it could get no worse. But who was to say this risky noble could make things better? Galothar the Vile detested being bound to anyone but himself and his people.

He should not have allowed the noble to walk out alive—or at least on both legs.

Howling, the Black King drove a cloaked fist into the stone wall, stopping as a breath of dust curled over his arm. Then, as suddenly as it came, it passed: the image of a short flight of stairs carpeted with dirt. There must have been a hundred sets of stairs in Korgoroth, but somehow he didn't have to search the town to know that this one led downwards to a long-forgotten armory. The Shadow was calling.

Swift as a fleeting shadow, the king had flickered across town and stood once again at the foot of the stairs. Weapons worn useless by time clung to the walls around him, but he knew any hope of using them against the monster haunting his city was futile.

"Now you're in my head, too," Galothar growled. "I don't recall making it public territory."

A laugh echoed from within the loaded darkness, causing icy fingers to run from the center of the Black King's back to his shoulder blades and sides. Then, like a screaming victim cut off with the assistance of a dagger, the high laughter stopped.

"I suppose you do not know why I summed you, then," the Shadow said. Galothar felt something shifting in the darkness but, as always, couldn't see anything.

"I want the boy-prince killed," said the darkness.

Surprise restricted any immediate response from the dark elf.

"He is but a minor issue," the Shadow continued, "And he is your responsibility now. I, however, have different matters to which I must attend."

The king's eyes narrowed and patience wavered. Didn't everyone have other, more urgent matters?

Then suddenly the light ebbing from the entrance above faded—or maybe the darkness just surged forward for a moment before retreating. The action continued, the light dimming in and out, in and out, as the elf clutched at a spear he didn't have. He was starting to regret leaving a weapon behind.

Commands raced from his mind to his mouth but were somehow drowned in the supernaturally throbbing silence. The shadows knew no boundaries; they curled non themselves and swooped over his head like phantoms, each seeming more real, more tangible than the last. All oxygen left his lungs. No sounds came from the Shadow, unless the vile sucking sounds emanating from the seven growing columns of smoke were his.

Yes, there were definitely seven. Even as the whirlwind reached its height the Black King could count them, could feel them…

The light seeping out behind him was swallowed for longer than it ever had before—long enough for the king's mind to scream for him to inhale—and then it stopped.

Tangible as ever, the wall of darkness in which the enemy hid loomed, unbroken in the storm—if anything, stronger than before. Lined up uniformly in front of it, however, stood seven new figures. Their milky porcelain faces were almost too much for even Galothar's elven eyes to take in, their long, built bodies draped too fluidly in deep, blood-red cloaks. Their gazes too impunitous.

"What is this?" the king demanded sharply. "These are not elves—"

When the Shadow spoke it was as if the elven king wasn't even in the room. "Go forth, my Darkseekers. Clear a path to the throne—a throne that is rightfully mine, if only we can bring these denizens to recognize it. Go! Leave none standing where you have treaded."

All the porcelain figures inclined their heads, and it was just then that Galothar realized that shadows rippled off of their stretched-out forms like steam off of a freshly-cooked meal. Cloaks fluttered, his lank hair twisted slightly, and they were gone. Questions barbed against the king's lip, but he was given no breathing time.

"I command you to get the Prince. Do with him what you wish. I must never see him again."

Anger whistled through the Black King's head. He wanted to snarl, to lunge into the darkness, show the Shadow who the vulnerable one really was, to eradicate that venomous grip that had surrounded his head ever since he had stepped into the weapon cellar.

The king inclined his body slightly in a bow and took his leave.

X-x-X-x-X

Nathan reached up to scratch the prickling at the back of his neck. It hadn't gone away since he left the accursed elven city, and judging from the uncomfortable shifting of the guard in their saddles, they felt it too.

Every corner of his mind seethed with questions, yet Anthius had barely uttered a word since Morden had seen them back to their horses, so the Prince upheld a grudging silence. After some minutes of trotting through the eerie forest, he took the advantage of rest to ponder. Much had been revealed, maddeningly inviting in new open-ended theories.

The Guard followed a path winding along the flat bottom of a small ravine, heading as close to north as they could determine. It wasn't until they chanced upon the small clearings near the trail that Anthius suggested they stop for a while; there were various matters in need of being hammered out. Nathan pressed toward it as quickly as he could without rushing.

In the green space four rotting stumps were tethered to the ground with creepers, and combined with the faded, charred circle that could only be an old fire pit, it was fairly obvious travelers had camped there before. However, the main attraction of the site was undoubtedly the cave chiseled into the sheer slope of vegetation; an arch of crumbling rock grown into the slope was all that bordered the ominous black void. The Guard took the scene with a gray stoicism that was becoming too common for Nathan's liking. but he could sort out what he was going to say after he spoke with his uncle.

They met in the trees just beyond the cave without exchanging a single sign of their intentions while the rest of the men situated themselves around the deadened fire pit. Members of the Rose Guard could strike up a blaze even in the midst of the current damp springtime.

"I've been thinking." Nathan dove directly into the conversation. "That Nara woman."

He could tell Anthius had taken the same concepts into account as he had, it was only a matter of comparing the outcomes of their thoughts.

Forging on, Nathan said, "She spoke of our goals being similar—the blonde girl's and mine. The farm girl."

"She is no farm girl," Anthius muttered speedily, his glacier eyes digging testily into Nathan's. "You know what I'm talking about?"

The Prince's breath hitched in his throat. "The girl from the island?"

Anthius's eyes tightenend, perhaps wondering how much his nephew had divined. Nathan disliked the testy atmosphere greatly.

"So she's—she's after the Sacred Blade?" he said. "She's going to Ethen?"

"I suppose it's so."

"But—but…impossible!"

His uncle's look deepened. "She has just as much knowledge as we do, nephew," he said. The truth stung, but even its vile qualities could not underplay its nature.

"We must take swift action," Nathan said imperiously. "I've been thinking about it."

"As have I."

Sucking in a deep breath, the Prince said, "We must move. Time is of the essence. I daresay I need to remind you of our circumstances—?"

"No." Anthius's voice was as dry as the snapping fire nearby; Nathan could tell his proposal wouldn't be met with much enthusiasm already.

"We'll send Talyn with a few men back to Anaea to hold over the throne while we seek information."

"Absollutely not," remonstrated Anthius. "Anaea is our best chance at acquiring whereabouts; I am not prepared to give it up to—"

"So don't. Have Talyn work on his own there. Or better yet—you could join him."

At that point Anthius shifted his stance. His jaw hardened into a solid line and his eyebrows descended upon each other as he said, "No."

Certainty settling itself comfortably inside his head, the Prince turned on his heel as he closed the argument. "So it's settled then. Talyn leaves at first light, and we, too, but toward the east." Nathan strode away from the hardened Anthius for a moment, then paused. "You know something about the girl. What is it?"

Anthius's face alit into a look of haughty amusement as he told him.

X-x-X-x-X

They left at dawn.