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Two hundred twenty-five leagues west of Jaelot as the crow flew, the Fellowship Sorcerer who served Athera as Althain's Warden lay stricken in his tower chamber. Stilled on his cot, tucked under the moth-frayed wool of the blankets he was always too harried to air, Sethvir lay like a wax effigy. His slack hands stayed crossed, his pixie-boned frame unmoved since the hour his colleague, Asandir, had laid him in repose before his pressured departure. Overtaken by crisis without precedent, Sethvir languished, his mind savaged by bursts of mental imagery, torn without order from the fragmented stream of his tie to the wounded earth.
While the magnetic lanes of the planet were skewed, the broadranging gift the departed Paravians had bestowed upon Althain's Warden remained whipped by the roiled flux. His earth-sense stayed deranged, a wildfire that raged and burned like loose rope snapped through his slackened grasp. Sethvir wrestled through sick, spinning senses to snatch the barrage of images back into cohesion.
Fleeting bursts showed him glimpses of Jaelot's armed guardsmen, riding head down against rising storm; in close haloes of candlelight, he saw Koriani seniors in purple robes and red-banded sleeves gathered in deep consultation. Lately given the news of the late Prime's succession, they would not yet know that Morriel's plot had upset the lane forces, a move aimed to cripple Fellowship resources and drive the first wedge through the compact.
Caught at the crux, while damaged wardspells came unraveled across Mirthlvain Swamp, and packs of venomous methspawn stirred in their roiling thousands, Sethvir fretted behind his sealed eyelids. Predatory fish and venomed serpents might prey upon innocent lives; yet worse perils threatened. The most troubling could not be seen or touched, but lurked beyond the airless void that hung between distant stars.
Racked by sharp worry, Sethvir forced his innermind through a swift survey of the barrier ward raised to warn against an invasion of free wraiths from the dead planet of Marak. Left unguarded, the grand interstices of the construct glowed soft blue in quiescence. Yet the calm bought him no reassurance. Sethvir had no source for his gnawing concern. The circling fear chafed him that the more evolved body of the Mistwraith left cut off beyond Southgate might move in and prey on the vulnerable world while Fellowship resources were engaged elsewhere.
Since Morriel Prime's insidious machinations to mask her irregular succession, his Warden's perception had been whirled like a moth in a downdraft amid the spiraling disarray of the lane flux. Sethvir did not dissociate from the event, though he could have; too many guardian ward rings stood vulnerable to the effects of a magnetic imbalance. The most dangerous of these he held bound in check by direct, personal intervention. The drain of such effort bled his faculties without mercy, until tactile awareness of his body thinned to cobwebs. Moment to moment, he existed as a spark of naked will adrift on a scattered stream of imagery.
If a colleague now stood in support at his bedside, Sethvir held only the vague recognition that he was no longer alone. Words whirled between the smashed links of identity, the sound of struck consonants like flurried sparks whose meaning touched him in snatches.
"... no, he's not sleeping, but drawn inward." The gusty, lecturing tone was Luhaine's, the discorporate colleague first to arrive when disaster broke the past evening. "His sighted vision made him the only one of our Fellowship with the resource at hand to map the full scope of the damage on the hour the lanes went unstable."
Again, Luhaine qualified with a stone's endless patience. "Yes, the lanes are retuned, now, except for the sixth, which sustains a remedial spell to guide it back to alignment. Since that stay should suffice, Sethvir's engaged elsewhere. He's bridging the seals that keep critical wards from unraveling. . ."
As though spurred by suggestion, a flicker of sight framed the fortress at Methisle, where tumbledown walls no longer contained the migrationof venomous creatures unsettled by shifting magnetics. Through snatched views of roiled waters, and the rustle of disturbed reeds, Luhaine's measured phrases resumed...
"His earth-sense is undamaged, but wielded without his full cognizance. What you ask is not possible. No other among us can track the threads of meaning and significance." On a whiplash note of testy frustration, the Sorcerer responded to someone else present, "Yes, in hard truth, the facts are discouraging. No. Please don't try. The Warden can't speak. His powers are spent past wise limits. The most accomplished adept in your Brotherhood could not grasp the scope of the problems he's stemming from minute to minute. Make no mistake! To disturb him at all could cast all of this world to disaster."
Someone proffered a gentler reply, phrasing drowned under another cascade of disturbingly fragmented imagery. Sethvir and the rest of the Fellowship understood, the lynchpin of the world yet rested on the life of the last Teir's'Ffalenn.
Nor was that spirit safe, but driven to harried flight cross-country, with an armed pack of guards at his heels. Sethvir's vision splintered through the branchings of parallel event. He saw Jaelot's mayor ranting in targetless anger for the fact that the Shadow Master had slipped through his cordon. Then, in tied linkage, another view arose from north Tysan, of an ominous, damp stain that blackened the frost-silvered grasses where a stone basin had been recently emptied ...
A chill swept Sethvir, even through trance, for the tangle of energies left in dissonant imprint bespoke traces of unclean acts. In the free wilds of Camris, his sight showed him spilled water, paned over with crystalline ice and the sick, phosphor haze of spent blood magic ...
The extreme sensitivity of Sethvir's earth-sense traced down that wisped remnant of energy.
"Lysaer," he gasped in a tortured whisper. Unbidden vision expanded the connection. He beheld the fair coloring and chisel-cut face of the s'Ilessid prince. But the clean symmetry of Lysaer's features appeared subtly recast, hardened to the blind fervor of the Mistwraith's curse, which drove his headlong quest to destroy his half brother, Arithon.
". . . without doubt," Luhaine was saying in reassurance. "The s'Ilessid is still in Camris. From there, he can scarcely pose a direct threat to his half brother on the east coast of Rathain."
But that balance would change. Sethvir's earth-sense bore witness. Cloaked under darkness, Lysaer s'Ilessid mounted a cream charger. His urgent, clipped speech exhorted an elite party of officers to ride eastward during the night.
The man named Divine Prince by Tysan's misled masses planned to cross the Camris plain to the coast, then make rendezvous with a fast galley. Once over the narrow inlet to Atainia, he would rejoin the road to Instrell Bay and board a trader bound for Rathain as early as the next fortnight.
"We are called to serve!" Arms raised in impassioned appeal, the Prince of the Light addressed his veteran officers. "I have received visions! Evil moves abroad as we speak! The Spinner of Darkness has returned to the continent. In Jaelot, innocent people have already suffered and died, victimized by his sorceries. I am charged by the Light to stand in defense. Ride with me! Lend your swords to bring down this minion of darkness, and be blessed in name for all time!"
"The Prince of the Light goes to muster his eastern allies," Sethvir gasped, the words blurred into his caught breath, too faint to be understood. Against a blazing maelstrom of imagery foretelling blood and disaster, he cried tortured warning against the haze of raised voices around him. "Master of Shadow...endangered..."
"Hush! Listen, the Warden speaks!" Cloth rustled nearby. The drafts sang of indistinct movement.
Sethvir wrestled the crazy quilt cataract of images that battered his mind beyond reason. "Lysaer s'llessid knows..." He rammed his thoughts stable, framed intent like stamped crystal, and at last, transferred the gist of his desperate message.
While Sethvir sank back, Luhaine's staid presence assumed the task of explaining. "Yes, we have news, an ill turn for the worse. The Mistwraith's curse does not rest while we're burdened. Lysaer s'llessid has discovered his s'Ffalenn half brother has dared to return to the continent. He'll muster for war on false grounds and religion. Yes, winter blizzards will slow him. But the pack of fanatics who have cast him as savior have resorted to unclean practice and dark augury. Word of the Shadow Master's presence will be sent on ahead. Sethvir foresees armed troops assembled in Darkling. Etarra has mustered for years against this hour. The field commander there will set seasoned troops on the march, well prepared for rough country and cold weather. They may not move fast, but they'll be relentless once they know Arithon's position. Until the s'Ffalenn prince escapes back to sea, his life is going to stay vulnerlable."
A second voice questioned; Luhaine settled into exhaustive lecturing, but Sethvir lost the thread as his cognizance faded back into the tangling resurgence of imagery...
In the wooded foothills of Tornir Peaks, an escaped pack of Khadrim flew on bat-leather wings, keening their shrill song of bloodlust. They circled a trade caravan bound for Karfael, stooped in attack, and shredded the drover's campsite. Armed guards died inflames. The screams of ripped horses and disemboweled men blended into the predators' whistles of quavering dissonance.
Sethvir sensed the bleak pain of the dying. Beyond sorrow, he curbed his flash-point anger that the clean-cut, new wards Asandir had just raised to hold the renegade packs in confinement had been utterly destroyed in the cascading flux of the lane imbalance. Morriel Prime had succeeded too well; the Fellowship was caught too desperately shorthanded to dispatch trained help to intervene.
A second scene flowered: this one farther south, couched amid the ocherbrick towers of Lysaer's restored capital of Avenor. There, the subtle, secretive man appointed as High Priest of the Light sat awake and brooding by candlelight. In black jealousy, he pondered the name bandied in taprooms and wineshops across the city. In place of Lysaer, Divine Prince, the land's folk praised young Prince Kevor, whose bravery at the untried age of fourteen had quelled last night's pending riots. Fell portents had sheared across the clear sky, an ominous harbinger of evil to come at the hand of the Master of Shadow. Yet Avenor's unnerved people did not hail the Light, but instead drew their heart from the mortal courage displayed by the young heir apparent...
Sethvir had no chance to pursue the implications sprung from that startling twist. The unformed premonition of danger dispersed like blown smoke as his view of the high priest's sanctum whirled away. Shifted sight showed a herd of dun deer, startled from grazing the ice-rimmed hummocks of the Salt Fens due north of Earle. The does turned raised heads, while a foam-flecked black stud thundered by, its rider charged to spell-driven haste. Upon his broad shoulders, the most perilous threat unleashed by the old Prime's plotting...
The Fellowship Sorcerer, Asandir, raced toward the grimward which confined the unquiet dreams of the ghost of the king drake, Eckracken. The torn guard spells he spurred at a gallop to mend leached at Sethvir's consciousness, a burning imbalance that frayed through ordered thought with the tenacity of flung acid.
Until Asandir arrived at the site and effected full-scale intervention, the tenuous grip of the Warden's stretched resources became all that stemmed those pent powers of chaos. He had held the line firm since the deranged lane force had snarled in backlash. The stopgap spells maintained at long distance throbbed to Sethvir's heartbeat, draining his core reserves of vitality. Each minute, passing, bled more strength from him. His competent grasp on his earth-sense ebbed, while the unchecked spate of images plunged his cognizant vision into frenetic disorder.
The Warden of Althain could scarcely harness the flow. His consciousness rode the slipstream of impressions like a leaf unmoored in a gale. All his last strength was engrossed in the ties, faint but everpresent, that cast lines of spelled force like webs of wrought light across the flawed seals of not one, but six additional grimwards. Eleven others he watched, wary, alert for the first, crumbling trace of attrition. The stakes were unforgiving if his vigil should fail. Just one broached grimward would upend the w orld's order. The wild resonance of drake-dream would unleash tangling chaos and unravel the ties that bound matter.
Asandir could claim neither rest nor respite until he had tested and repaired the seals binding each grimward under Fellowship guardianship.
Another flaw in the rings holding Eckracken's haunt spat a leaked burst of static. Sethvir sensed the discharge as a pinprick of pain snagged through the whole cloth of awareness. Sensation flowered at once into vision, of a sere, winter bog, windswept under the clouded night sky. Something more than mere wind ruffled through the dry banks of the reedbeds. Sethvir knew dismay. His earth-sense scanned those contrary riffles and detected a small swarm of iyats, energy sprites native to Athera that fed upon elemental energies. To mage-sight, the creatures appeared as a mad gyre of sparks, winnowed and whirled by the insatiable hungers that drove them. They normally fed on the natural forces found in falling water, tides, and the changing dynamics of weather. Yet the tuned spirals of refined spellcraft offered more powerful fare, and inevitably lured them like magnets. Their voracious appetites were already piqued by the interference signature of the ward forces, wobbling on the brink of release. If the iyats reached the site of the grimward ahead of Asandir, they would cluster and sate themselves on the emissions let off by the lane-damaged ward rings. Like a yanked loop of knit, their feeding frenzy would unravel firm barriers into a draining breach.
Sethvir measured the drumming pound of the black stallion's hooves. He found himself faced with immutable fact: his colleague's intervention from the field would not come in time to deflect the inbound swarm of fiends. Despite sharp awareness of his prostrate state, and the frail balance of overtaxed faculties, the Sorcerer saw no choice. No other could act. He was Althain's Warden, and bound by his office to serve the Fellowship's founding purpose.
He slipped into deep trance. Oblivious to Luhaine's cry of alarm, Sethvir drew core power that he could ill spare from his already beleaguered life force. He delved into the spinning fields that bound light into matter and rewove their delicate axis into drawn cords of intent. His construct took form outside time and space, an alignment braided from will and desperate awareness. With exacting care, he paired force with counterforce, framing an intricate baffle to match the high-frequency energies leaking from the distressed grimward. Mask the source of emission, and fall back on hope that the fiend swarm would lose impetus and dissipate.
Sethvir readied his stayspell, a starburst of light whose resonant frequencies precisely canceled the signature of the grimward's skewed seal. He tapped into his earth-sense, interlinked with its tapestry, then aligned his remedial ciphers overtop of the flaw in the ward ring. The Paravian prime rune closed the contact. The grand veil of the mysteries parted, and the wrought energies of Sethvir's spell assumed anchored form in the world of Athera.
Even in trance, Althain's Warden sensed the moment of impact. His flesh felt bathed in a fissure of lava. That raging, bright firestorm seared through muscle and bone, as though living tissue rejected its ties to firm substance. Each nerve lit and blazed to a white incandescence that promised to burn for eternity. His mind, in stark contrast, was locked in cold, a chill that stopped thought and half smothered him.
There he drifted. Time and identity hung in suspension. By the depth of his isolation, Sethvir understood: the grimward was weakened, gone dangerously volatile. Should the chaos inside break through the seals, the intimate contact of his remedial stayspell would bridge a link to the seat of his being. First the life force that sustained him, then the fabric of his spirit would become unraveled, devoured by powers without mercy.
Through the sleeting, bright rain of static came fragmented voices, the echoes of words cast like flotsam amid the seething rush of a storm tide. Sethvir grasped no meaning; could not access the earth link. Effectively blinded, the Warden of Althain pitched himself to endure until the hour Asandir of the Fellowship could reach the site of the grimward, mend the stressed rings, and relieve him.Peril's Gate.