Galam watched as the lithe form slid from his sleeping pallet. The woman was slender with skin pale as moonlight and long raven hair. Beneath the dark strands he could see an image drawn in black ink, a serpentine form that began just below her waist, writhing over her glistening skin, growing larger and more monstrous as it crept up to her shoulders. Tendrils erupted from the demonic shape, twisting and slithering down her smooth legs and along her arms.
“You never told me your name,” Galam said, somewhat breathlessly. The night’s exertions had wearied him more than he cared to admit.
“Jankayla,” the woman said, moving away, her hips swaying in a hypnotic rhythm.
“Jankayla,” he repeated. “That is an old name. I heard a story once, when I was a boy, about a woman called Jankayla. She was a dark elf, like you. A sorceress they say, who came among the A’sar in time of war. She slew a thousand men, impaled their bodies on spikes and bathed in their blood. Now, there are no more A’sar.”
She paused, her back still to him.
“I am sorry. It is a terrible story, but your parents must not have liked you very much if they named you after such an evil witch.”
Jankayla laughed. “I know that story as well, but the dark elves do not see this woman as an evil sorceress. In our version it was the A’sar who were the villains, who pillaged and murdered without mercy, and the sorceress who was the hero, who crushed the A’sar’s reign of terror and ended a feud that had gone on for far too many years.”
She half turned, revealing the soft curve of a breast. Galam could see one of the demon’s horns, a crescent-shaped blade sliding up along the side of her smooth, white throat. Outside, the wind moaned and the walls of the tent shuddered.
“You like stories?” Jankayla asked.
“Oh, yes, very much. The winters here are long and very cold. One must pass the time somehow.”
“Have you ever heard how elves and dark elves became enemies, how our races became separate? It is an epic tale and fit for a Wudu chieftain, surely.”
“If it pleases you,” Galam yawned and stretched like a sated cat, “then I will hear it.”
Jankayla poured wine into a cup and drank. He watched the working of her throat and the dance of firelight across her naked body.
“Storytelling is thirsty work.” She refilled her cup.
“So is lovemaking,” he replied with a hungry grin.
“That too.” She turned to face him. Around her neck she wore an amulet, an oval of hammered copper with a dark gemstone at its center. It hung down between her breasts, her only accoutrement. Why would she not remove it? He couldn’t guess, nor did he care. He took in the full measure of her form, remembering how her flesh felt beneath his hands and the taste of her lips.
“Perhaps when you have finished your tale we could…”
“Perhaps.” She ran a tongue over lips the color of a ripe plum. “But only if you are a good listener.” She sipped wine, one hand toying with a strand of dark hair.
“Long ago,” she began, “on the isle of Ellyldan, in the midst of the Sunset Sea, there was a kingdom called Menobé. The people of Menobé were an ancient race, steeped in wisdom and long tradition. They were sailors and fisher folk. They were peaceful by nature, and content in their simple lives. Then came the Ashalonians, led by their young king, an ambitious warrior called Darion. The Ashalonians fell among the Menobé like wolves among sheep. They plundered the ancient city of Menob and enslaved her people.
“Among these slaves was a wizard called Kuttiar, the first human to uncover the secrets of the seven magic lumens. In truth, Kuttiar was so powerful that alone he might have prevailed against the Ashalonians. But Kuttiar feared the consequences to his family and friends should he resist.
“Instead, Kuttiar sought to placate the king with tales of magical realms that existed alongside this world. He even claimed to have visited one such place that he named the Dreamland. So enchanted was the king by these tales that he desired to see the Dreamland for himself and commanded Kuttiar to take him there.
“Fearing for the lives of his friends and kin, Kuttiar began work on what was perhaps the greatest magic ever performed by a mortal. He combined the power of the seven lumens, creating an eighth lumen, a grand lumen of pure white magic. Thus he was able to open a doorway into the Dreamland.”
As she spoke, Jankayla wandered about the chieftain’s tent, swirling the wine in her cup. The sound of her voice was honey in Galam’s ears.
“The king and his men discovered a world more beautiful, and more deadly, than any country they had ever known. They crossed utterly foreign landscapes, filled with strange animals and exotic plants, and encountered creatures they had previously thought to exist only in myths and legends.
“The Dreamland was ruled by the elves and, in time, King Darion and his men found their way to a wondrous elven city. They approached the gates, asking for an audience with the ruler of the city, and were brought before the elven king, a wise and ancient lord named Ehglarion.”
“Aye, and that’s when all the trouble began,” Galam interrupted. He was growing impatient with her story and wanted nothing more than that she return to his bed.
“Not at first.” Her eyes betrayed a momentary flicker of irritation. She paused, sipping wine, and then resumed her tale.
“King Ehglarion was a man of peace and honor. He welcomed the newcomers as he would travelers from a distant land, offering them friendship and sharing the wonders and comforts of his court. For a time, all was well.”
Jankayla ceased her pacing, sinking onto the edge of the sleeping pallet. She handed the cup to Galam. He took it gratefully and drank.
“Then, one day, King Darion came upon a young woman who was walking in the gardens, a woman more beautiful than any he had ever known. Her name was Shahéra, and she was King Ehglarion’s only daughter. King Darion fell in love with Shahéra, and she with him, and together they plotted to flee the Dreamland, to return to Ninavar where Darion promised to make her his queen.
“What he did not know was that Shahéra was already betrothed to Ondurillian, King Ehglarion’s oldest friend and the realm’s greatest general. Ondurillian soon learned of Shahéra’s betrayal, and of the lovers’ plans for escape. Ever a man of action, Ondurillian gathered his most trusted soldiers and, in the dead of night, fell upon King Darion and his men, capturing them all. Even Kuttiar was taken. Powerful as the wizard’s spells might be, he was no match for the elves who know all there is to know of magic.
“For Shahéra’s sake, Ondurillian was merciful–he did not slay Darion as he might have, but instead escorted the king and his company to the portal by which they had entered the Dreamland. Ondurillian expelled the humans, then used powerful spells to seal the gates of their realm so that men could never again enter.”
Jankayla twisted her slim form, crawling over Galam, straddling his prone body. The chieftain tossed the cup aside, lifting his mouth to her breasts. She pushed him back down onto the pallet playfully, but with surprising strength, her hands flat against his broad chest.
“Consumed by his love for Shahéra, King Darion vowed to return. He commanded Kuttiar to reopen the door. But the wizard could not, for the magic of the elves was too great.
“At this, the king flew into a terrible rage and threatened to kill Kuttiar’s family if the wizard did not do as he was commanded. Desperate to save those whom he loved, Kuttiar called upon dark and terrible powers to conjure an even greater magic than before. He did more than just open a door–he tore a hole in the fabric of reality, one that could never be mended. Alas, poor Kuttiar. He was consumed by the very powers he tried to wield.
“King Darion shed no tears for the wizard. Without pause he gathered a great army and led them back into the Dreamland. He came once more to the elven kingdom, this time as an invader.”
She leaned down, close to the chieftain’s neck, her lips brushing against his ear. The amulet fell onto his chest, the metal cold against his flesh.
“The war between the elves and the Ashalonians lasted many long years. The invaders were eventually forced to retreat from the Dreamland and Menobé was overrun. The Ashalonians fled to their own country, but the elven army followed. King Darion met Ondurillian on a field of battle and, in a contest that lasted for a day and a night, the king was slain beneath Ondurillian’s blade. Princess Shahéra, upon hearing the news of her lover’s death, threw herself from the highest tower of her father’s castle. She fell into the river and was drowned.
“But the war did not end there, for there were many races that dwelled in the Dreamland. They too had heard tales of this new world and were anxious to see it for themselves.
“A multitude of forces converged on Ninavar, each hoping to profit by the struggle. Dwarves were among the first, for they had long fought against the elves, and quickly sided with the humans. The slith and the kerram crept from their hidden strongholds, hoping to share in the spoils. The giants came down from their mountains, and hosts of goblins, trolls, ogres, and orcs followed in their wake. With the veil between worlds breached, both Ninavar and the Dreamland were consumed in turmoil, a conflict that went on for generations.”
“Aye, and still we fight against each other.” Galam moved his hips beneath her, his desire roused. “Gods, woman, but I believe you could tease a man to death.”
“Perhaps I could,” Jankayla whispered, “but why kill a man when I can take his soul?”
Galam gasped as an unexpected stab of pain lanced through his heart. An eldritch light grew beneath Jankayla’s fingertips while the gemstone of the amulet began to emit an unearthly glow. In bewildered terror, Galam tried to escape, to scream for help, but no sound passed his lips save for a low whine like that of a wounded beast. His limbs had gone rigid, his muscles taut as straining rope.
“For centuries King Ehglarion struggled with his grief, haunted by his daughter’s death,” Jankayla continued, ignoring the chieftain’s pain. “He sought to make peace with the humans and end the struggle. But Ondurillian, who had also loved Shahéra, would accept nothing less than humanity’s complete and utter destruction. Enraged by his friend’s betrayal, Ondurillian turned against Ehglarion, slaying the old king and usurping the elven throne. His reign was, unfortunately, short lived. Ehglarion’s son, Idhrenion, who still had many legions loyal to him and to the memory of his father, strove against Ondurillian. Idhrenion prevailed and, in the end, Ondurillian, along with all who followed him, were exiled from the Dreamland forever.
“Ondurillian led his people to the Isle of Thilea, and there established a new kingdom, swearing vengeance on human and elf alike. He forgot his old name and took up a new one, calling himself Tenabrus, which in the language of the elves means night, and his people became the dark elves.”
Galam made a choking sound, trying to draw air into his lungs. Some invisible force held him. He could neither move nor call out. The veins beneath his skin turned black, a latticework of fine dark lines that crawled slowly up his torso and across his terror-stricken face.
“We dark elves do not forget,” Jankayla said. “We will never rest until the kingdoms of Ninavar have been made to pay, and pay dearly, for what was done to us and for all that we have suffered.”
Jankayla’s hands glowed brighter still as a ghostly image of Galam, a living shadow of the man, rose to the surface of his skin. Galam’s face was contorted in a mask of pain and fear, his body rigid as a sword. The amulet’s gemstone sucked at the shadow, absorbing the chieftain’s tortured soul until nothing remained.
* * *
Galam’s flesh took on a deathly pallor. His horror-filled eyes still gazed, unseeing, at Jankayla. His heart slowed and soon stilled all together. Jankayla lifted the amulet so that she could gaze into the gem’s translucent depths. Beneath its dark surface, the captured soul of Galam writhed in fear and agony.
She slid from the bed and quickly donned her undergarments, then snatched up her woolen gown from the floor and pulled it on, cinching it at the waist with a broad leather belt. She found her boots, black leather, soft as sin, and put them on. She smiled as she dressed. It had been a long time since she had allowed herself to enjoy a man. Galam, like many of the Wudu tribesmen who roamed the north, was a man of unbridled passion. He had been quite insistent once his appetites were aroused. His soul made a welcome addition to her collection.
She went to the trunk at the foot of the chieftain’s bed, half hidden by furs and blankets. It was securely locked, but she whispered a word over it and extended her will. The lock sprang open. Inside was a collection of papers and scrolls, along with various trophies and trinkets from the Belgari tribe’s many campaigns. She rummaged through the accumulated detritus, reaching down into the bottom of the trunk until at last she found what she was looking for, a dark wooden box, brittle and cracked with age.
She removed the box, setting it on the bed next to Galam’s rapidly cooling body. Slowly and carefully, as if fearing a trap, she opened it, and there inside, on a bed of velvet cloth, was a shard of volcanic glass as black as midnight. She picked it up, admiring its beauty.
“At last,” Jankayla whispered, a thin smile playing across her lips. Long had been her search for it, and many times she had dreamed of holding it in her hands again. Centuries had passed since its loss, but now it was hers once more. With this shard she could finally begin the great work. There was only one more thing she needed, and she knew precisely where to find it.
Jankayla placed the shard back into its wooden box. She secured the lid and slipped the box into a voluminous pocket of her gown. Dawn was near. It was time to end this affair and begin the next stage of her plans.
Jankayla pulled her luxurious sable cloak close around her shoulders. Taking up her staff, a long shaft of ebony wood etched with many runes and symbols, she went to the entrance of the chieftain’s tent. Carefully, she pulled back the flap of heavy canvas, furtively looking out into the night. Outside the tent a pair of guardsmen wrapped in fur and leather stood watch. Jankayla made a swirling motion with her hand, whispering words in Lunovarian as she cast her spell. A moment later the men slid to the ground, slumped against the tent, and began snoring contentedly.
The sorceress looked up at the dark sky. The night was bright and cold. The moon had long since set and the entire camp was shrouded in darkness. Jankayla touched one of the runes on her staff. She spoke words of power, channeling energy into the staff as she thrust it upward. A column of flame blazed up over the camp, momentarily illuminating the drifts of snow and the dark, foreboding trees.
After a pause, she heard the sound of a braying horn, then silence. But the silence was only temporary. A man screamed, a piercing sound that was cut short. Then came the rhythmic crunching of crusted snow beneath boot heels and more cries of pain and anguish. The camp came to life, slowly and sluggishly, as men, wakened from sleep, struggled to grasp what was happening. By the time they armed themselves and staggered out into the night, it was already too late.
Jankayla went back inside the chieftain’s tent. She found Galam’s sword, sheathed and hanging from a broad leather girdle over a chair. She wrenched the blade free, strode to the bed where Galam lay, his skin turning ashen. Leaning her staff against the pallet, she grabbed hold of the chieftain’s hair, lifted his head, and hewed through his thick neck, separating Galam’s head from his body. Thick, dark blood oozed from his severed neck as Jankayla turned away. She cast the sword onto the floor, retrieved her staff, and casually kicked over a brazier full of hot coals as she passed. The coals tumbled out onto the rug, igniting fur, cloth, and wood. Jankayla did not look back.
Holding her grisly trophy at her side, she stepped out into the night. Behind her, the chieftain’s tent was quickly consumed by fire, driving back the shadows and bringing the scene before her into sharp relief. Everywhere she looked, men struggled, cursed, screamed, and died. A bull ceratu, driven mad with terror, rampaged through the camp destroying everything in its path. A man with a sword, bloodied and howling in rage, ran toward her. She raised her staff. Lightning arced from the end of it, striking the man in the chest. His charred corpse fell to the ground, steam rising from the pool of melted snow that formed beneath him. Jankayla laughed, a cold, metallic sound. She was enjoying herself immensely, more than she had in years. Her only regrets were that there would be no time to mount the bodies on spikes and no opportunity to bathe in the blood of the fallen.
* * *
The sounds of battle faded. The cries of fury and pain, the screams of remorseless slaughter, were silenced at last. Dawn spread across the sky with a dull gray light that illuminated the snow-covered ground, glinting off broken blades and torn armor. Distant mountains, forever draped in white, rose to meet the frosty sky, their jagged peaks cruel as the swords and spears still clutched in frozen hands.
In the midst of this tortured scene, Jankayla took her ease, reclining against the ceratu. The shaggy beast had been pierced by many arrows and finally fallen at the edge of the camp. Jankayla sat on one of its massive forelegs, leaning her back against the bulwark of the beast’s torso as she sipped wine, red as spilled blood, from a wooden cup. One booted foot rested on the severed head of Galam, former chieftain of the Belgari tribe.
Jankayla’s Warchod, elite dark elf soldiers clad in black leather and chain mail, wandered among the ruins of the camp, searching for treasures. Some of the Warchod gathered around her, standing guard and attending to the needs of their mistress. The only other living thing in the camp was a small, misshapen creature in dark robes, who appeared out of the shambles of ruined tents, lumbering toward her with a swinging gate while rubbing its small hands together.
“Grisnal,” Jankayla eyed the creature with weary patience. “Any word from our new friends?” Her servant was a wizard and a tolerably good one despite his deformities. But his true talent was divination. Grisnal’s scrying frequently yielded information that was quite accurate and true, making him extremely useful. Grisnal was the git of a dark elf woman and an orc, an unfortunate coupling if ever there was one. Jankayla had occasionally pondered how such a union might occur, but since she didn’t really care, she had never bothered to inquire.
“They come, my lady,” Grisnal said in a lilting voice. “In fact, they are here already.”
Jankayla raised her eyes to see a company of orcs emerging from the woods. They were man-sized brutes with leathery skin ranging in color from brown to black. There were a fair number of them, enough to overcome her Warchod should they wish, but since they were here at her invitation, she doubted it would come to that. Still, nothing was ever certain with these creatures. At their approach, Jankayla rose, taking her staff in hand.
“I see you have been busy,” the orc leader said as he drew near. He was the largest of the company, heavily muscled, and tattooed in red ink. He had blunt features with a ridge of bone running lengthwise along the midline on top of his skull. His skin was ebony and crusted in places, showing signs of the blight, a skin condition his race suffered, the result of prolonged exposure to sunlight.
“Durog,” Jankayla said, almost jovially, “how nice of you to join us. I am a woman of my word, am I not?”
She picked up Galam’s head, her long fingers entwining with the thick mat of tawny hair as she tore it lose from the ice and tossed it. It landed at Durog’s feet with a frozen thump. The orc looked down at it, recognizing the Wudu chieftain’s features. He spat on the dead man’s face, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I hope you made him suffer before you killed him.”
“I told him a story, a very sad story, but I’m afraid he didn’t like the ending.”
Durog looked at her, puzzlement twisting his mouth.
“Never mind,” Jankayla said. “What news do you bring?”
“The clans are falling into line. I had to kill Bogmer to make my point–never cared much for that arrogant maggot to begin with–but the rest came over easily enough. The Yellow Fang, the Skull Crushers, all of them. Even Agrum’s lot, but I’ll need to keep an eye on that son of a whore. Too ambitious for his own good.”
“What about the rendezvous?”
“They’ll all be there,” Durog looked around at the dead Belgari that littered the field, “now that the pass into the mountains is open and there’s nothing to prevent it. By the time the border guard and the rest of the Wudu clans realize what’s happened, it’ll be too late. Some of the goblin tribes are coming too, and I’ve managed to recruit a handful of trolls to join the party.”
Jankayla smiled at that. “Apparently, no one wants to miss the war.”
“We haven’t had one in a while and we’re overdue. Everyone’s looking for a little payback from those pig-skinned humans and Arkirius is a good a place to start.”
Durog looked down again at the chieftain’s head lying in the snow. His expression grew angry and he kicked it away with his boot.
“You should’ve let me kill Galam.” Durog’s voice dropped to a low rumble. “He was an enemy of the Red Claw. We could have handled the Belgari on our own.”
Jankayla offered Durog a cold, predatory smile. As a rule she did not like orcs, not even ones as eloquent as Durog, but he had two things most orcs did not–brains and ambition–a dangerous combination in a creature that lacked such basic moral values as humility and mercy. Like it or not, he was exactly what she needed. Others of his kind would follow him, even the other warlords.
“It might interest you to know that the Belgari were in league with the Arkirian border guard and have been for years. They were tasked with more than just guarding the passes into the mountains, and have been accepting coin and food from the Arkirians in exchange for killing orcs.”
“That’s hardly a secret. What of it? And why should you care if orcs live or die?”
“Normally I don’t. Your short existence is as nothing to one who has lived for nearly a thousand years, who has seen the rise and fall of generations. But things have changed in the world, and I find myself in need of an army. You should be more appreciative of my interest.”
This brought a bark of laughter from the orc. “I have long heard tales of the kingdom of Thilea and of your sorcerer king, Tenabrus. You have power enough to conquer half the world if the stories be true. I cannot help but wonder why you would come to me and my clan for aid.”
“As I said, things have changed.” Jankayla pulled her cloak closer around her and took a step toward Durog. “I cannot call upon Thilea’s armies, not yet at least. What I am about to do I must do alone. These few,” she indicated her Warchod, “loyal retainers though they may be, are all that I have. To achieve my designs I will need an army, one that hates Arkirius as much as I do. And one that is not afraid to battle humans.”
“I do not fear humans,” Durog said, “nor do my kin. We’ll soon have an army greater than anything the world has seen in hundreds of years. But before I lead my people over the mountains, I want to know what you intend to do with them.”
“Do?” Jankayla said, mock surprise written across her face. “I will do nothing with them. They are yours to command, Durog og Bharog. You are the high warlord now. All I want is for you to keep the Arkirians off balance long enough for me to complete my task, then you are free to do as you like. Just imagine what you might accomplish… after you’ve fulfilled our agreement of course.”
Durog could imagine it, and the thought brought a smile to his brutish face, but it quickly faded. “And me? What do I get out of all this?”
“You get to fulfill your rightful destiny. I have long known of your desire to reclaim the lands that once belonged to your people, in the days before Aedon subdued the north and built his great stronghold on Arrom’s Rock. The Rock is the key to both of our ambitions.”
Durog folded his arms across his massive chest. “So, that’s it then. You want The Rock.”
“No, I don’t want it. You do. I only want what is inside it. The Rock will be yours, your seat of power if you choose it, from which you will be able to retake the surrounding countryside.”
“There is nothing at Arrom’s Rock but dust and broken ruins.”
“The castle is in ruins, true,” Jankayla said, “but Horgar and his dwarves burrowed deep beneath The Rock and built an entire underground fortress inside the mountain. Those halls remain and are enough to hold you and your people in safety while you pillage the countryside. Which reminds me,” she paused, considering her words. “I will require… participants… a great many of them, in fact. You should be able to find plenty of innocent souls among the villages.”
“And what about the Arkirians?”
“The people of Arkirius believe Arrom’s Rock to be haunted, an evil place, and will not willingly go near it, but there is one kingdom that stands close by. If they were to discover me there, they might try to interfere. However, with your help, they will be much too busy to realize the true threat. When all is done, The Rock will be yours and I will have the bones of Ashendraugnir.”
“For what purpose? What could you possibly want with a pile of moldering dragon bones?”
“That is my business,” Jankayla said. “In exchange for your assistance, I have helped you build an army. I have opened the pass for you, and I will give you The Rock. The bargain is fair, is it not?”
“You’ve given me nothing. The Red Claw could have taken the pass at any time, and if Arkirius is to be won it will be with the blood of my people. If you want our help, you’re going to have to do better than that.”
Jankayla’s face darkened. If not for her great need, she might have reduced this loathsome orc to a pool of blood and entrails. How dare he question her. Still, she had expected this and had one more gem to offer.
“My servant,” she indicated Grisnal with a wave of her hand, the misshapen little wizard lingering on the periphery, “is able to see things, things which have not yet occurred. He has seen the Golden Phial. He knows where it is.”
This caused something of a stir in the Red Claw’s ranks. Even Durog sucked in his breath at the mention of it. Most knew the story of the Golden Phial, the sacred vessel said to contain the light of Enu, given to Aedon Arturas on the eve of the Battle of Midderan. The Phial was rare magic indeed and extremely powerful. It was said that any army that possessed the Golden Phial could not be beaten, that they would become invincible.
“That’s just a story,” Durog said. “It doesn’t exist.”
“It does,” Jankayla said. “The Golden Phial is real, and Grisnal knows where it is to be found. If you honor our agreement, I will share this secret with you.”
“Why would you do that?” Durog asked, suspicion twisting his features. “Why not take it for yourself?”
“I don’t want it, and I haven’t the resources to win it even if I did. I want the bones of Ashendraugnir. The Phial will be yours.”
This answer appeared to satisfy the orc. A cruel grin spread across Durog’s face. His thick black lips peeled back to reveal crooked yellow fangs and he barked out another laugh.
“Share your secret then, and we will make our alliance.” He spit into the palm of his leathery hand and extended it. Jankayla took it without hesitation, squeezing the orc’s thick, scarred fingers in an iron grip that caused Durog’s eyes to widen in sudden admiration.
“Tell him, Grisnal.” Jankayla held Durog with her eyes.
The wizard shuffled forward, still rubbing his hands together in nervous agitation. He wheezed, then coughed, clearing his throat loudly.
“It’s in the very kingdom my mistress spoke of, a place called Nachtwald. It is a small, backward kingdom, out of the way and easily subdued.”
“How far away from Arrom’s Rock is this Nachtwald?” Durog said, meeting the sorceress’ gaze.
“That’s the best part. It is less than a day’s travel from Arrom’s Rock. With the Golden Phial, your army will be unstoppable. All of Arkirius can be yours, and no one will be able to oppose you.”
“Are you sure about all this?” Durog turned to look at the wizard.
“Yes,” Grisnal said. “I have seen it. It will be there when your army arrives. In a month’s time, when the moon is hidden and the lumen of darkness is at its peak, you will take the city of Nachtwald and there you will find the Golden Phial.”
The story continues in A Way with Magic, now available on Amazon.