Prologue: The Lake Stone
The old sour-faced hag shuffled a crooked cane in her hand, taking small steps so she did not tire before she reached the guardhouse. Her thin legs grew used to these trips. She lived in a small cottage just inside the East Taren border, but it still took her several hours each night to reach the much warmer land of the West Taren territories. It was a long walk from home, but no self-respecting East Tarener would choose to live on West Taren ground simply to save time. Being near the border's edge was close enough for her. Slowly, as she progressed down the trail, she felt the air get noticeably thicker, and wind gusts began to push ever stronger against her robed frame.
For as long as the old woman could remember, the borderlands were the only place in Taren that was neither very hot nor very cold. East Taren was known for its biting cold and frost-covered landscapes, whereas West Taren was a blistering, hot land covered with tall grains stretching toward the sun. The borderland separated these two extreme halves of Taren, and was a dreary gray with ever-overcast skies that gave every man, plant, and animal a faded, washed-out look. At the core of the borderlands, a great rolling fog made it impossible to see past it to the other side of the border. It also provided an insidious cover for thieves and bandits to hide as they waited for victims trying to cross over. The wretched wind and damp fog was so heavy there, only a handful of the most determined and skilled cutthroats could take full advantage of it. Thus, any person bold enough to travel across this treacherous border-path had an equal chance of emerging on the other side perfectly unscathed or suffering a gruesome fate.
If the wiry hag cared about the risk she was taking, it did not show on her scowling face-a detail not lost on her village neighbors. Every evening at dusk, she felt them watching her as she left her home. She felt their prying eyes on her back as she tugged on her doorknob to be sure it was well locked before venturing out for the borderlands. When she returned home early the next day, the fools took it upon themselves to eye their disapproval as she let herself inside to rest.
She never told the villagers where she went each night-much to their displeasure-so they had to content themselves with speculation. She made no secret of her annoyance with this rural rabble, and they kept their distance.
The hag narrowed her eyes, mindful of the dust that rose ahead from the dirt trail. The lane she trod a hundred times before was lined by wild hedgerows on one side and open fields, dotted with the occasional house on the other. Adjusting her gray woolen scarf, she ambled along, her thoughts drifting back to her bothersome neighbors.
Observing her routine was something of a common pastime for the locals, who had few means of entertainment. Tonight she sensed them peering at her through the cracks of their shuttered windows, she caught sight of them craning their narrow necks in her direction as they hurried home to the comfort of their beds. As thickheaded as these townsfolk were, the hag assumed they figured out by now she had been going to the West Taren city of Lament every night. It was nearly four hours travel from the village, yet it was the closest settlement on the other side of the border. The hag grunted as she used her cane to push aside a cluster of thorny brambles from her path.Even a child could figure it out.
"She must be out of her wits to take such a journey alone at this late hour, night after night," some landowners whispered among themselves as she passed them by.
"Bitter old woman," a few murmured, "she rudely refuses any escort. The West Taren savages will rip into her old bones like a pack of wolves if they ever find her!"
Still others said, "Why in Taren would she want to go to that foul city anyway? She must be up to no good. Her luck can't last forever!"
Her keen ears occasionally caught this idle chatter as she passed, and she shook her head. The gossips saw only her bent back and feeble walk, therefore, assumed her magic was feeble as well. However, no border-brigand who crossed her path and challenged her-lived to make that mistake a second time.
Just two nights ago-halfway across the blustery border-she cast asunder an entire band of rogues-miserable cowards who lurk in the wind and fog for a living! Lying at her feet, they begged for mercy. In response to their pleas, she channeled the force-giving powers of Psi-kinetics and pushed their flailing bodies deep into the earth, crushing limbs, skulls, and innards along the way. She ignored their suffering cries as the ground slowly swallowed them-some dead, some still alive-until there was no sign of them left. "There is your mercy!" she called out over the howling gale to the spot that marked the bandits' graves.
The hag was reluctant to abandon the recollection for it gave her much pleasure, but there were important matters that needed her full attention. There was the guard, for a start.
In need of money, she reluctantly agreed to train an ignorant night guardsman in West Taren's city of Lamec. He was anUnnatural-a West Tarener with East Taren magic. He was a rarity, for most West Tareners not only had no magical ability, they shunned it. Even though her pupil showed no talent, she kept her promise, teaching the fool the ways of magic. What she taught, however, were inferior spells that lasted but seconds, ones that created smoke and sparks, and little more. An East Taren child might have shown him such cheap, trivial tricks for nothing, but her pupil knew no better.
Ignorant of magic, as all West Tareners were, he shamelessly overpaid for such worthless lore-ten silver pieces a visit. Tonight she intended to collect more than silver. Tonight she hoped to collect power beyond imagining.
She was in the heart of the borderlands now. Tempest and fog wrapped around her like a velvet fist. She lowered her head, tightened her fluttering scarf, and forced her way onward. There were no houses or farmland here, only weeping wilderness greeted her as she passed; blurry shadows of brush and twisted trees were barely seen through the whirling mist. Minutes later, she crossed over to West Taren, and the harsh wind died down, replaced by a tamer warmer breeze. Healthy shrubbery and clear starry skies became noticeable. To her disappointment, she encountered no bandits on this trip, but reached her destination at a good time. Just past midnight.
Not so early, she would have to hide and wait for the guard to relieve the other sentry, but not so late, his shift would be half over.I will not rush tonight of all nights, she thought.I need the extra time to put my plan into action.
Her eyes, milky and clouded with age, squinted ahead. There stood the guard, nervously awaiting her arrival. She despisedUnnaturals, and this was the second one she agreed to teach.At least the first one had potential! This one was useful only for the money he paid her and as a pawn to exploit, as she desired. The guard suspected nothing. She, of course, could have attempted to reach her goal without the guard's help-she certainly had the power. However, power or not, she could not afford to be distracted with an enemy watching. A well-placed arrow in her back could quickly end her plans and her life.
Killing the guard would do her little good because the boat she needed to reach her goal required the paddling arms of someone physically stronger than she was. She dared not waste preciousPsi-magicmoving the boat herself, for the old woman suspected the Stone would not surrender its secrets easily, and she would need all the strength and power she could muster when the time came. In order for her ploy to work, she needed the guardunder her control. And that required time and patience…even for aMaster Psi-telepathlike herself. Earning silver, in the meantime, was a bonus.
Thinking about the success of her deception brought a jagged smile to her face. The guard, as he always did, mistook her disdainful amusement with him as enthusiasm for the next lesson. He glanced around anxiously then hurried her into his small guardhouse containing two wooden stools and lit with a single lantern.
She disliked the dusty, cramped quarters almost as much as she disliked the guard, but she drew comfort in the knowledge this loathsome project was nearing its end. After so many cycles, the guard was ready. Her magic had slowly eroded his judgment, like rust ate away at unkempt armor.
Directly outside the guardhouse was the Great Lake of Lamec, and precisely in its center lay the Lake Stone, the talisman from the heavens. The midnight waters glistened and glowed from the mysterious power of the Stone.Soon, she thought, she would add its power to her own.
"For this lesson," she told the guard, "I want no silver." Upon seeing the predictably puzzled look on his face, the old woman went on, "I ask only that you take me by boat to see the Lake Stone for a closer view." She waited a while to judge the look in the guardsman's eyes. "I wish to touch it."
As she expected, the guard rambled on how no one was allowed near the Stone and of his responsibilities to guard it. Growing impatient, she cut his pitiful babbling short with a hard tap of her cane upon the stone floor. The guardhouse became silent.
"Do you not want to continue with your lessons, man? I offer you a chance to save your money, and you insult my generosity with this nonsense." The old woman leaned forward so close the uneasy guard feared the hag would kiss him. "This is no bandit or vandal who stands before you, guard," she whispered hoarsely. "What possible harm can I, a bent old woman, do by touching the Stone? Even the King himself of this marvelous capital city would grant my simple request if he knew of it. Perhaps I would do better to go to him instead."
The old woman smiled-her teeth were brilliantly white. She backed away, sat on a stool, and waited. The guard looked uncertain, unsure. Not willing to make eye contact, he simply stared at the floor. The old woman was confident in what he would say next. Starting with the guard's first lesson, she gradually developed a link to touch his mind with hers. Now he unwittingly exposed his thoughts for her to manipulate and exploit as she pleased. Her grin slowly widened. She had access to his very soul-and thus access to the Lake Stone. She knew the guard feared her as much as he feared being caught near the Lake Stone-a crime the West Tareners punished with death.
"Very well, witch," the guardsman scoffed. He laughed as if he couldn't care less, but the worry in his voice and in his mind betrayed him. "If you wish to forfeit your payment just to lay your wrinkled hands on a rock, then so be it."
The old woman waited for him to continue. She knew he was going to add something else-something foolish.
"However," the guard added hesitantly, "such a special request demands a special lesson."
The old woman was ready with an answer. "Of course, my friend. Did you think I would not reward this favor?" The witch tossed up her gray head and shut her eyes in apparent concentration. A long moment of silence passed.
"I know," she said at last, "I will teach you one of my most treasured enchantments. Would you like to learn the wondrous magic of flight?" Of course, she possessed no such power, or she would not have needed a boat to reach the Stone, much less any help from the ridiculous sentry.
The guard did not notice this breach in logic, and though he struggled to conceal his excitement, it had shone in his eyes, brighter than the smoky lantern that lit the room. "That would do nicely," he agreed. "I have always wanted to fly like the birds of the air. Let us begin the lesson."
The old woman pointed at the guard, wagging her finger and shaking her head like a mother showing disapproval to a misbehaved child. "In all the time you have spent with me in study, I have always collected my payment first. Tonight will be no different."
The guard frowned. "Very well, but I pray that you do not take long with this folly."
"No longer than it takes you to ready the boat."
In a short while, they boarded a small boat, used only by guards when patrolling the lake. The woman was pleased her plan, so long in the making, was working so well. She cast hidden glances at the guard as he nervously rowed toward the center of the lake. He never told her his name. She revealed a cold smile. It was Platus. She loathed the guard's hypocrisy almost as much as his West Taren blood. He spoke of duty and responsibility, and here he was peddling away his loyalty to his King for personal gain like the well-dressed hustlers of Argat, who would sell their own daughters for profit. He was more of a scoundrel in his shiny, medal-adorned guardsman's uniform than all the ragged thieves in Taren.That is why most West Tareners possess no magic, she thought. Their corrupt, lazy minds were not suited for the discipline.
Slowly, the boat neared the Lake Stone. The witch could feel the waves of perpetual heat gushing from it, like a mystic fountain.It was such a waste, she thought,this treasure fell on West Taren land.
Finally, they reached the marveled Stone. The old woman stared in awe at the size of it. From a distance, it resembled a shrunken pearl set in a giant oyster of water, but up close, it was immense. Though most of it was submerged, its dry upper half rose higher than three men and more than thrice as wide. It looked smooth in some places and rough in others. Small holes connected by fine cracks pocked its surface. In the darkness of the night, she could detect a low glow emanating from within shining faintly through the cracks. That was the source of its magic, she decided. Somewhere underneath its dull, scarred crust was the core of unimaginable energy-energy that could make her the most powerful being Taren had ever seen.
She would become a goddess.
The guard hissed at her side, "Do it now old witch, or we will be seen!"
Annoyed at having her thoughts severed, the woman looked over and spoke harshly to the guard for the first time. "Be quiet, pawn!" Her eyes narrowed with hate. "I will do this in my own time. If I move too slowly for your taste, you may swim back!" Without waiting for his reaction, she turned her back to the now wordless guard and refocused on the Lake Stone. Its strange silvery glow grew brighter as if it anticipated this moment as much as she did. So seductive. Entrancing! The Lake Stone was meant for her. The old woman knew it.
She could bear the delay no longer. She leaned forward with outstretched hands to receive its touch. The warmth of the Stone warmed her night-chilled skin and made it tingle. She trembled. The long cycles of eking out her living as a lesser mage were finally over!
A blinding flash of light engulfed the boat spilling outward until it illuminated the entire lake. Night became as day, and a strange humming filled the air. The old woman was alight from the strange fire coming from the Lake Stone. She shattered its outermost shell, allowing the power to flow into her without hindrance or restraint. Like daggers, silver-white beams of flashing force bored their way into her trembling body. Fear suddenly gripped her. She could not remove her hands from the burning stone. She could not move at all. The old woman let out a bloodcurdling shriek.
Deciding to take the sorceress's advice, the guard began to swim back to shore. He turned to look back and saw the little patrol boat explode in silver flames. His eyes widened in terror when he saw the Lake Stone. It glowed like a fiery coal and was belching out metallic, glittering smoke. "What have I allowed to pass?" he cried aloud.
A jab of hot pain shot into the guard's head. He struggled to keep swimming despite the agony. In vain, he tried to ignore it and concentrate on staying afloat. Then he heard the sound of laughter-hysterical, screaming laughter. At first, he swore it had to be the witch, but that could not be possible, for he saw her perish in the strange fire.
The maddening laughter persisted. It echoed in his head and made the pain worse. Just before he succumbed to unconsciousness, the guard realized the insane laughter was his own.