Seven blue wards have imprisoned the Black Lord in the Underworld for aeons. Now he has stolen a human child and made him a mortal god. After eighteen years of torturous training, Bane sets forth to break the wards with aid of a dark army. The Demon Lord will release Arkonen and destroy the Overworld unless an innocent young girl can turn him from his savage path...
The seeress gripped the edge of the glass, her knuckles whitening as her brows drew together over eyes that filled with horror. The acolyte who watched over Elder Mother while she was absorbed in her scrying hurried to her side, frightened by her rigid stance and the pallor that washed the colour from her cheeks.
"What is it, Mother?" she whispered, gripping the seeress' shoulder.
Ellese sat unmoving, her gaze locked on the faraway event visible only to her within the glass. The acolyte glanced at the clear round glass in its simple silver frame, which, for her, held nothing but the bookshelves beyond. She waited, unwilling to disturb Elder Mother's intense concentration. The seeress lowered her hands and drew a deep, shuddering breath, blinking.
"The Black Lord!" Her voice rasped with dread, and her eyes remained glazed. "The evil has finally found a way to enter this world; to break the wards that the ancient wizards set."
The girl stared at the seeress with undisguised terror, her hands bunched in her robe, wringing it. "How?"
"A boy child, born below. He will be sent." "When will he come?"
Ellese's eyes regained their focus. "Not for a time yet. He still has to grow; to be taught the evil powers and their use. Twenty years, if we are fortunate. Time to prepare ourselves, at least." The acolyte sagged with relief, and Elder Mother said, "Do not look so happy, child, you will still be here." She stood up. "Send a message to all the Elder Mothers. We must have a meeting; we must plan our defence."
The acolyte nodded and hurried out, lifting the flowing skirts of her white healer's robe so they did not hamper her. Ellese crossed her study to stare out of the window, her eyes blind to the midwinter snow that covered the garden in a thick blanket. Gusts eddied falling flakes into swirling patterns, brushing against the windows, sliding down to gather on the ledge. She shivered, but not with cold, for the fire that roared in the hearth warmed the cosy book-lined room with its wooden panelling and thick, woollen maroon curtains.
Her desk occupied the corner opposite the stone fireplace. The glass stood innocuously on it, clear now. Tidily arranged papers filled the desk's corners, and an ink well and writing plumes stood at its centre. The cold light from the windows mingled with the fire's warm glow to illuminate the myriad ancient tomes that filled the bookshelves. The room's cosy normality vanished as she recalled the horrible vision she had just witnessed.
Within the deep, gloomy caverns of the Underworld, a boy child had been born. Magic had formed the great cavern in which the event had taken place eons ago, the rock twisted and warped by the will of the god who had created it. Huge columns of solidified magma upheld the vaulted ceiling of stretched, striated rock, cooled in the midst of its oozing, patterned with smears and blobs. The inner fire shone from cracks in the walls and floor, throwing lurid light in twisted patterns. Fire demons in true form cast sickly green and orange light.
The demons' chanting had all but drowned out the woman's screams as she died on the stone altar, her belly torn open as the Black Lord ripped the baby from her womb. The boy's cries had stopped when the Black Lord inscribed a dark rune upon his head, and his eyes had glazed under the evil power. The Lord of the Underworld had handed the bloody infant to a minion, who wrapped him in a cloth. By then, the child's mother was dead, her blood pooled on the floor.
The infant stood no chance against the Underworld's corruption. He would be warped, moulded as the Black Lord wished, and none could save him from his fate. Ellese's heart twisted with pity when she recalled the tiny child, slick with his mother's blood. He was an innocent babe, doomed to be a helpless pawn in the Black Lord's hands. She had no doubt that he would suffer terribly in the Underworld, but far worse than his horrific birth had been the ritual the
Black Lord had performed before he had torn the infant from his mother's womb.
A month later, the abbey's hall filled with old women; elder mothers gathered from the various abbeys all over the land. The pillar-lined, grey stone room had been built as a dining hall, but doubled as a meeting place for the Council of Elders. Sturdy tables and chairs cluttered its polished stone floor, and stained-glass windows allowed streams of sunlight in to brighten it. The tables had been pushed against the walls, and the chairs were arranged into rows where the old ladies sat, facing a polished bur-wood desk.
Acolytes and lesser healers stood near the tables, armed with kettles of brewing tea, buttered scones and pastries. Others dashed in and out with more boiling water or fresh pastries, steaming hot from the kitchen ovens. An air of aged wisdom hung over the multitude of elder mothers. Their eyes were faded and their bodies frail, but they were still sharp of mind and tongue.
The seeress Ellese sat behind the desk and studied the sea of wrinkled faces. It bobbed and weaved like an ocean, accompanied by sniffles, hacking coughs and wheezing breaths as the old women aired their infirmities, illnesses associated with age, which no healing could cure. Young acolytes plied them with cups of milk or tea, balancing trays of pastries as they wound amidst the throng, summoned by snapping fingers and stopped by imperiously outstretched hands. The elder mothers muttered in a low-pitched hum, some discussing the topic on hand, others doubtless just swapping gossip. Ellese sighed and rapped on the desk, drawing all eyes to her, some of which wandered past without pause. The majority of her audience were stern-faced matrons, but a few were truly ancient.
"You know why we are here," she said. "You all know what has happened. I ask you today for your thoughts. What are we going to do about it?" Ellese spoke loudly, for many old ladies held brass trumpets to their ears and leant forward with peevish frowns. She scanned the throng.
A robust, middle-aged woman called, "Rescue the child."
Ellese's lips curved in a bitter smile. "Easier said than done, Merris, considering that he is in the Underworld. Are you volunteering?"
A murmur swept the room, mixed with a few titters. Merris glowered at her grinning neighbour, and many elder mothers muttered to their friends behind withered hands. A wizened crone stood, leaning on a gnarled stick.
"Find a way to bind him when he emerges," she quavered. Ellese nodded. "A good idea, but what?"
"There must be something." She glanced around. "What is his nature? There must be something that will work."
"He is a human child. The Black Lord cannot break the wards. He is trapped in the Underworld, along with all his foul servants." Ellese fixed the woman with steely grey eyes. "This boy will travel freely to the Overworld, and he will be able to break the wards. The demons will raise him; teach him their ways and prepare him for the day when he will spread his evil over the land and raise armies to lay waste to those who do not bow to him."
The old woman frowned. "He is not possessed?"
Ellese shook her head. "He is worse. They will fill him with their evil power and corrupt his mind with their teachings, yet the power of the wards will not stop him, for he is human."
Another elder mother stood up. "Then he will only be a black mage. What of preparing an army to capture him when he emerges?"
Ellese looked down at the desk, her heart heavy with despair. All the more obvious suggestions would be worthless, and she hated to reject each as it was spoken. "He will wield the power of the Black Lord. No man will be able to stand against him. The foul creatures of the night will worship him and the dark races with follow him. The boy will be invincible by any
normal means. When he rises, he will not be a mere black mage." She paused, her hands curling into fists. "He has been born a god."
A hubbub started as the women objected to this sweeping statement, turning to each other for support. A plump, florid-faced woman shouted, "Why call us here, and ask for our help, when there is no solution to this threat?"
Ellese banged on the desk again, subduing the uproar a little. "There is a solution. There has to be, but perhaps we are not capable of thinking of it. I had hoped one of you had been given a vision or dream, some sign from the Lady to guide us."
Silence fell as wrinkled brows furrowed, searching their memories for such a dream, and ancient eyes narrowed and glanced at neighbours. Ellese scanned the assembly with growing desperation. For the last month, she had racked her brains for a solution. Surely one of these wise women knew the answer to this threat? Surely the Lady had given someone a sign, or a vision? The goddess would not abandon them in their hour of need.
A tall, angular woman at the back of the assembly stood, glancing around shyly as all eyes turned to her. A handsome healer with honey-blonde hair, she was the youngest elder mother there, barely out of her twenties. She looked out of place amongst so many grey-heads, and fiddled nervously with her silver healer's necklace.
Ellese smiled with relief and assurance. "Yes, Larris?"
Larris straightened, lifting her chin. "I think I know what we need to do."