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2000: Britannian Serial: Part 1: Blind Virtue
"'Master, of these sagas I have heard, but not of their source. Where is the birthplace of legend?'
'Legends are like the stars. Birthed in the furnace of mystery and time, they both guide and inspire.'
'But you avoid the question.'
'Must you possess this knowledge? Will it make the miracles seem more miraculous? The horrors more horrific?'
'We are scholars, Master. We seek truth.'
'Embrace this truth, then. There are many shadow worlds, each with its own history and myth. These sagas are the myths of our shadow world.'
'Myth is not truth, Master.'
'It is all the truth you will ever need.'"
- Conversations of Ahriman the Scholar
The silhouette appeared on the castle wall as though exhaled by the winter fog. In the twilight it moved across snow-dappled ramparts and crenellations. It made no sound. Its breath formed no mist in the cold air. Even a careful observer could barely have discerned that this was a man, for the black shape seemed by instinct to know where eyes would fall and skillfully it kept itself just out of view. Yet, as though unsure of its next move, it stopped when it approached the tallest tower of the castle. An amber glow beamed from an open window on the topmost floor. Deep voices murmured within. The silhouette crouched in a shadow, unmoving, surrounded by the grit and dusty smell of timeworn stones. Then it stirred, and stood, and drew out a sword. The rising moon winked in the steel of the blade.
From a garden below came cries of discovery. The silhouette moved closer to the tower, darting among jagged shadows like a spider on its web. When the shouts below increased in urgency, the phantom slipped into a corner, in time to avoid a bright light that flooded the space it had just vacated. It paused again.
The light was magic. The time was at hand.
The frosty air swirled in a sudden breeze. There was a glint, as if the wind crystallized, and a second man stepped onto the rampart. He had materialized from nowhere. His cloak rode the breeze like a storm cloud.
The silhouette twirled its blade and struck. The cloaked man parried with a quickly drawn sword. The moon flashed in the impact and a metallic peal rang into the chill night. The silhouette pressed the attack. Their two blades smashed together again and again, precise blows challenged by masterful ripostes, a cacophony of wild sounds lashing at the castle walls. Their feet kicked up sprays of fresh snow.
At last a hush intruded. The two men stepped apart. The silhouette spoke, in a voice surprisingly soft. "I have come to deliver your death," it said.
"In whose name?" growled the taller man, whose cloak roiled behind him.
"In the name of Justice, Lord British."
"An assassin's blind justice." The newcomer chuckled. "And it is indeed blind. I am not Lord British. My name is Blackthorn."
The assassin said nothing.
"Who are you?" demanded Blackthorn.
The assassin answered in his gentle voice: "I am a prophet."
Blackthorn glowered at his opponent for a long, tense moment. Then his head tossed back and he laughed, a loud laugh aimed at the wakening stars. In the next instant a violent wind thundered around the assassin. An unnatural cyclone swept him from his perch atop the high wall and hurled him into the gardens several stories below. He hit the ground with a dull sound and a burst of snow.
His spell complete, the sorcerer Blackthorn dismissed the unruly winds and sheathed his sword. From his high vantage he watched as the guards of Castle Britannia converged on the assassin's broken form. There would be healing magic, of course, to keep the villain from dying. He would have to be questioned. There was work yet to be done here.
The sorcerer frowned. An assassin in Castle Britannia. This incident would try even Lord British's legendary patience. And Lord Blackthorn, alas, never claimed half the patience of his friend. Which was why British made a better monarch, while Blackthorn had the superior talent for questioning prisoners. "Damn this chill," he muttered, making his way to the narrow ladder leading down from the rampart. Even though the moon was bright, the climb to the ground was difficult in the dense, contorting shadows of the fallen night.
In the stifling darkness of the prison cell, Lord Blackthorn looked down at the shackled prophet. The prisoner lay in a crescent of orange lamplight, dirty and pale and shaking from loss of blood. He was a young man, not half Blackthorn's forty winters. His limbs were strong, with long muscles that came from years of physical exertion. Fair hair clung to his skin. His clothes, torn and bloodied, were entirely black. Blackthorn noticed that the prophet's thigh - exposed where a bandage drank blood from a wound - bore the marks left by the constant wear of a scabbard.
Silence clung to the dungeon walls. Blackthorn's breath ghosted before his face. The darkness seemed to crouch around him, sucking at the light of his lantern. The scent of the room was like a foul memory.
"Answer me, assassin," said Blackthorn. "Your time draws short."
The young man stared at a crack in the floor. His words were parched. "It seems no answer will serve you, my lord. You caught me at my work. I've failed. Now I'll die."
"No. I'll have an explanation first." Blackthorn ground his teeth. With his bald scalp and closely-cut goatee, Blackthorn's face was bitten with the late season's cold. He had no desire to linger in this foul place of insects and human stench and tendrils of dust in the air. But he would uncover the truth, comfort be damned. "Somebody hired you to kill Lord British. Give me your employer's name."
"I've told you, I work for no one. I serve only destiny." He coughed, wiped his lips. "I am a prophet."
"Yes, so you've said. Though I know a professional murderer when I see one. An amateur couldn't have eluded the sentry spells on the castle walls." He chewed on a heavy sigh. "Very well, prophet. You meant to take the life of Lord British, your liege and my best friend. What have you foreseen, to drive you to such a suicidal act?"
"Lord British will deliver the land into doom."
"Madness. British has delivered us from doom, time and again."
"My visions do not lie." The prophet shifted his weight. His chains rasped across one another. "It's true, I'm an assassin for hire. The Trade keeps my mind ... from the prophecies that afflict me. But tonight I acted for Justice, not for money. I have seen the future. I've seen what Lord British will do. And I've failed to stop him." His voice sank to a dry grumble. "We are doomed, my lord. I don't care to waste my remaining breaths trying to convince you of it."
In a flurry the nobleman seized the prisoner's ragged tunic and lifted the smaller man off the ground. "You will care. At Castle Blackthorn I have interrogators to make you care. This damnable cold has turned their mood even fouler than mine, so they'll appreciate a midwinter gift like you." He took a deep breath. "Now. Listen carefully. I've got mulled wine and a nice fire waiting for me upstairs, and I don't want to remain in this filthy place much longer. So you'd best take advantage of these last moments to tell me the truth. I may be the friendliest ear you'll ever speak to again."
The prophet's tone lost its arrogance. "Lord British is going to cast a spell that will plunge Britannia into darkness. He's been plotting with his court sorcerer. They have no idea the horror they will cause. That's what I have foreseen."
"I will confirm this." Blackthorn let go of his prisoner. "You will regret a lie."
The prophet fell to his knees. "It is not a lie. Please, please confirm it." He swallowed painfully and looked up with glistening eyes. "By the Virtues, my lord, I pray that your heart tells you what mine told me. Lord British must be stopped."
Lord Blackthorn snorted. For a moment longer he regarded the injured man. Then he retrieved his lantern and turned to go, leaving the prisoner in the cold, clutching gloom of the cell. Blackthorn's cloak pirouetted about him. His boots grated the stone floor. The door croaked as it opened, admitting moonlight and a tumble of fresh night air that dispelled the sour odor of the dungeon. Blackthorn shivered, then paused. "What is your name, 'prophet?'"
"Exedur, my lord."
"Exedur. You infiltrated Castle Britannia without triggering any of its magical alarms. If I hadn't spotted you from the garden, your plot may well have succeeded. How did you manage it?"
"I told you, my lord. I see the future. It prevents... missteps."
"And yet you did not foresee the spell that defeated you?"
"I don't question my gift. I simply employ it when I must." He coughed again. His voice regained a margin of strength. "And what missteps will you take tonight, my lord?"
Blackthorn answered with a raptor's glare, icy in the silver moonlight, a look which often cowed nobles and courtiers. But he glared into blackness, as if the assassin had vanished. With a grunt he slammed the cell door closed. Shrugging on his thick cloak he lengthened his strides toward the main halls of Castle Britannia, hoping to outpace the chill that pinched at his aching bones.
The blaze in the hearth roared with a throaty voice. Lord Blackthorn basked in its warmth as he reclined in a high-backed chair. A goblet of spiced wine rested in his grip. Around him were the tapestries, paintings and ornate appointments of a parlor fit for royalty. Even the smaller rooms of Castle Britannia, like this one, were renowned for their sumptuous details. For that reason alone Blackthorn made it a point to visit at least once a season, though he had called upon Lord British's hospitality somewhat more frequently of late.
He sat unmoving for some time, enjoying the woody scent of the smoke and the way the fire heated his face and the soles of his boots. The sensations were relaxing after the evening's unexpected excitement.
"More wine, my lord?" said a woman's voice from behind him.
The nobleman's face lit up in a smile. He did not turn around, but answered, "So a lady of the court is reduced to a serving girl, when the sun goes down?"
Into the glow of the fire stepped a young woman in a rich green dress, carrying a pitcher of wine. Her golden hair was drawn back into a fountain of braids. Her face might have been called angelic, were it not for the spark of mischief in her eyes, like reflected firelight. She propped a hand on her hip. "No more than a lord is reduced to the role of a guard. Now do you want some wine or not?"
Blackthorn tipped his goblet toward her. She filled it and another on a small table beside him. They touched their vessels in a wordless toast as she took a nearby chair. "By the way, Blackthorn, that Kal Vas of yours was well cast. I think your air elemental was quite a surprise for our friend the assassin. You must teach it to me someday."
"I had no choice, Gavrielle. It wasn't overkill. He might have escaped a lesser spell. It was blind luck that I discovered him at all." He sipped his wine, gazing at the fire as though into the distance. "I daresay he might have been a match for me blade to blade, too."
"Oh, the mighty warrior admits his equal." She chuckled. "What's Lord British going to do with him?"
"I haven't spoken with British yet."
"I see. And did our uninvited guest have anything to say, now that he's safely locked up?"
"Strange things, my lady. Very strange things. He's a very peculiar fellow, this assassin. He calls himself a prophet."
"A prophet!" She paused on the thought. "Clairvoyance. You know, that would explain how he anticipated your moves against him - except that last one, of course."
"Indeed. I don't think he's lying when he claims the gift of prescience. He sounds sincere. And he's convinced of..." The nobleman's voice faded. Gazing at the churning flames, he stroked his beard and recalled the young prophet, lying beaten on the dungeon floor. Secrets burned behind the lad's eyes, secrets he did not reveal even when threatened with torture. Blackthorn absently swirled the wine in his goblet. Then he set down the cup and pointed to his companion. "My lady, can you see to it I'm not disturbed for awhile?"
The lady sheltered a look of disappointment, but it was fleeting. "As you like, my lord. What are you up to?"
"More questions for our prophet." He flexed one hand before the fire. "This time I won't be so polite."
To a sorcerer, a man's dreams are as real and tangible as his flesh and bones. The door need only be unlocked.
Blackthorn sat in the parlor chanting a spell. His fingers were steepled before his face. His eyes were fixed in steadfast concentration, as he flawlessly intoned ancient commands which nature itself obeyed. Like ethereal curtains the veils of reality peeled away as he spoke. Flesh and substance and thought retreated from his spell.
In a bowl beside him, a handful of priceless black pearls flared and smoked and vanished. In a distant cell, Exedur trembled in his sleep.
Now Blackthorn walked inside the prophet's tormented dreams. He was astounded at the depth of the assassin's anguish, given substance by a terrible nightmare which raged and twisted like a fierce autumn storm. Around Blackthorn swirled a thousand pictures, sounds, impressions of life, caged emotions. Here was the horror in a murder victim's face. There was a child, shrieking over her dead mother. The sharp whiff of fresh blood. The sound of a blade's penetration. Reeling past was another dark image, of couples hand-in-hand under a bright moon, while Exedur walked alone.
And all around him, like dead leaves in the wind, Blackthorn watched ragged scraps of prophesy fluttering past, teasing, showing furtive glimpses of the future. The sorcerer was amazed. The assassin had not lied. Blackthorn saw the sunrise over Castle Britannia, which would not come for many hours. He saw Lady Gavrielle, asleep beside him. An image of himself arguing with Lord British. An army amassing somewhere in Britannia. The assassin spirited out of the dungeon in the thick of a snowfall. (Blackthorn took note of this one.) The clash of blades. The war cries of soldiers.
Yet it was a single prophecy which Blackthorn sought. He found it, as he knew he might, buried in the bleaker hollows of the assassin's mind. It was a more complete image than most; Exedur must have pieced it together from the rags and tatters that his gift revealed to him. Blackthorn examined it carefully. As Exedur had claimed, it was an image of Lord British, dressed in his wizard's robe. Beside him stood Nystul, British's white-haired court magician. The two of them were chanting inside a strange, dark spell chamber, its shelves laden with items of power more valuable than all of the monarch's wealth. Most valuable of all was a large, round lens of blue crystal before them on a table. Floating in the lens was the image of a book. Blackthorn recognized it at once. It was the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, a document of primal magic, long thought to be a legend until it was discovered in the inaccessible depths of the Great Stygian Abyss. In the prophecy, Nystul and British had unearthed a Vortex Lens through which to see the book. The pair was casting a spell from those forbidden pages. Blackthorn could not begin to fathom its purpose.
Nor did he have to wait long to see its result. The prophecy tumbled and fragmented as Nystul and British completed the ritual; and blackness and smoke replaced the rich, familiar pictures of Britannia. The land itself shook and cracked open and bled fire. Rivers flowed oil and muck. Lightning wounded a storm-muddied sky. Trees and animals grew strange and monstrous, and even the men of Britannia wore grotesque, fantastic shapes. Fearful, oily things flew through the skies.
Blackthorn recoiled from the scene. Never had he seen a nightmare so outlandish. Yet this was not simply a dream, but a repellent glimpse of the future, one which the sorcerer's mind rejected. With a shout he retreated from the prophet's dream world. His eyes opened. He was sitting in the parlor, before the crackling fire. A glaze of sweat dampened his skin. His wine cup lay on its side. Without a word he stood, snatching his cloak from the back of the chair. As he strode to the door his eyes were sharp with dread.
In the land of Britannia, in the world of Sosaria, every man and child idolized Lord British. Warrior and wizard, hero and ruler, savior of the people time and again, Lord British was more of a legend than a man. Though he was not old - only a few years more than Blackthorn - one might have imagined that he had lived in Britannia for centuries, the way his name was spoken with awe by elders and lorekeepers. With each retelling of his deeds, he took another step into the realm of mythology. Had he built a castle in the stars and hunted comets for sport, his people would not have thought him out of place.
For that reason, and not without some truth, Blackthorn imagined himself to be the only person in the world who saw British as a simple man. When Blackthorn met British, the future legend was a lonely outcast, misplaced in a world he did not know. British had learned the arts of war from friends such as Iolo and Dupre. The young explorer was already showing a dazzling talent for sorcery. But it was Blackthorn who recognized the true potential in the unusual outsider, naive and idealistic, yet driven by a passion more brilliant and vigorous than anything the nobleman had ever seen. Here, Blackthorn knew, was the raw ore of a king. What British lacked was guile and diplomacy and statecraft - skills which separated leaders from rulers. And the very skills in which Blackthorn excelled. So he had guided the career of his new friend, teaching him government and politics, chaperoning him toward the nobility and then, eventually, the throne of Britannia itself. The journey spanned many long, laborious years. Many times they saved each other's lives and many times they wanted to kill each other. Like brothers they grew together, British learning craft and subtlety, Blackthorn learning much about virtue and valor. After fifteen years, they were two parts of a whole. And they were the backbone of Britannia.
Yet Blackthorn, though he was a few years shy of British's age, had never stopped thinking of British as a younger brother. Where others saw Lord British the legend, Blackthorn saw the lonely outcast, whose heart quite often got the better of his brain. Though they were equal in height, Blackthorn always seemed to address his friend from above. And he took liberties in conversation of which lesser men would never dream.
"You're going to do what?" Blackthorn stood in the doorway of a small dressing room, staring with dismay at his friend. "Have you gone mad?"
The older man simply laughed. British was wrapped in a plush robe, preparing for bed. He splashed his face with warm water from a basin and ran wet fingers through his shoulder-length hair. Droplets sprinkled through his neat beard. Candlelight reflected in them. "It's very late. Maybe you should get some rest."
"The hour be damned! Repeat to me what you just said. I must have heard you wrong."
"I said, Nystul and I are going to use the Codex to rejoin the shards of the Gem of Immortality."
"I must still be trapped in that assassin's nightmare!" Blackthorn massaged his temples. "British, it can't be done. The Gem of Immortality has been destroyed. You can't take a shattered stone and just paste it back together."
"Nystul has proven to me that we can." British dabbed his face with a steaming towel and stepped past Blackthorn, into the bedchamber beyond. "I have no doubt that we'll succeed."
"Nystul has proven it? How can you possibly prove a thing like that?" Blackthorn followed his friend into the bedchamber, where British was pouring himself a steaming drink. Blackthorn paused a moment to collect himself. "British, listen to me. The Gem of Immortality was not just a magic stone. It contained the very essence of Sosaria. When it broke apart, Sosaria itself was fragmented. Each of the shards became its own world. Each one is less than the whole, yes, but they are distinct. Separate. Different. You know that."
"Of course, and you've put your finger on exactly what I intend to fix." The older man leaned against a tall, carved bedpost and sipped from his cup. "Blackthorn, think about it. We live in an incomplete land. Somewhere out there, locked in the shards, are shadows of Sosaria. Mirror images. A thousand copies of Britannia, of me, of you, of everything. The pieces of our very souls have been scattered, stripped from us! If I can make them whole again - if I can bring back the parts of Britannia that were torn from it - how shall I rest until I do so? How can I claim that I'm taking care of my land, my people, unless I do everything in my power to reunite them with what was lost?"
"What you're proposing is naive folly! Worse than folly. It's immeasurably dangerous. To tamper with the Gem of Immortality is to tamper with the very foundation of Sosaria. You could destroy everything! Neither you nor Nystul has the skill to undertake such a spell, and you know it."
"But we have the Codex. Nystul has reconstructed a Vortex Lens to view it. He's got the lens in his spell chamber." British set down his drink and laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Blackthorn, it's not some book of mere human magic. It's the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. There are secrets in those pages that you can't imagine. Of course there are dangers, but there's risk in everything. You and I have never backed down from risk. Risk alone has brought us where we are today. But when we restore the Gem, my friend, Britannia will be a paradise. Virtue will rule above evil. Men's hearts won't be empty anymore. We can conquer death. We can conquer death, Blackthorn! It's real. Nystul and I have figured out how to do it. We will succeed."
Blackthorn gazed at his friend. For an instant, in Lord British's eyes, he saw the paradise that could be. Blackthorn could almost feel the hollow places in his soul filling again. He craved it, like a hungry man craves a feast. But the black prophecy intruded, foul and bleak and ominous, and startled the nobleman from his reverie. "Then show me. Nystul has proved it to you. Prove it to me."
"I can't." British sighed, glanced at his drink. "There's no room in this for anyone else. When the time comes you'll be called upon to contribute, as will all of the sorcerers of Britannia. But only Nystul and I can know the spell."
Blackthorn's voice grew cold. "I have grave doubts, British."
"That, my closest friend," answered Lord British, "is why you have been excluded."
Outside the shuttered window, the winter winds swelled, lashing the castle with a fierce, bitter chill.
"And what of the assassin's prophecy?"
"Also an expression of doubt, perhaps?" British wiped a stray droplet of water from his brow. "It doesn't surprise me. Normally I'd be concerned about such an extraordinary assassin lurking outside my window. But right now I feel ... validated. Dreadful signs always appear when you're on the brink of something great. 'The greatest deeds always meet the greatest resistance.' You taught me that." He sipped from his drink again. His eyes became distant. "Nystul will want to spend some time with the assassin, most certainly, but I don't want to be distracted. If you're convinced he acted alone, that satisfies me. My sights are set on something truly important.
"This will be my greatest deed, Blackthorn. The greatest deed of any man."
Crossing his arms, Blackthorn spoke through clenched teeth. "What right do you have to try such a thing?"
Lord British almost choked on a laugh. His face registered genuine astonishment. "What right? By every Virtue, Blackthorn, what right do I have not to try?"
And the younger man knew there was nothing more to say.
The heavy door slammed open as Blackthorn stormed into Gavrielle's sitting room. The young lady was dressed in a white gown and robe, her long hair falling in unbraided ringlets. She leapt to her feet. "What --?"
"It's Nystul!" snarled the nobleman, banging the door shut. "He's got British under his spell. That old schemer has convinced him to do something outrageously dangerous."
"What is it? There must be an explanation."
"Of course there's an explanation. Nystul wants to cast a spell more powerful than anything ever attempted. It's his vain pride. And he's tricked British into backing him. Damn the old goat!"
Lady Gavrielle frowned. "That's my grandfather you're talking about."
"You're exactly right." He locked an intense gaze on the girl. "Which means you're in a position to help me. When does Nystul return to Castle Britannia?"
"Tomorrow evening, I believe, or the next. It depends how his research at Moonglow went. Why?"
"Because there's something you need to do before then." He took the girl's small hands and pressed them to his chest. "Gavrielle, you have to trust me in this. It's very important that you help me right now. There's more at stake than I can describe."
She softened, but furrowed her brow. "What is happening, Blackthorn?"
"Nothing. Nothing is going to happen, if I can help it." He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed them. "Now listen carefully. Follow my instructions. I don't have time to explain why right now, because I'm leaving in a few minutes."
"Leaving! Where are you going?"
"Back to Castle Blackthorn. I'm taking the prophet back to my keep, before your grandfather gets a hold of him." The sorcerer's bejeweled hand tightened around hers. "British has been duped by his own idealism. I won't rest until I've set him straight again."
Outside a tempest was rising, shrouding Castle Britannia in the opaque, icy whiteness of a thick midwinter snowfall.