The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|Jagged beams of blue energy raced across the sky and split wide the black, roiling clouds. Gale winds howled through the shattered windows and raised the heavy drapes, flapping them as if they weighed no more than a silken flag. The entire castle shuddered with concussion after concussion, as the world’s last wizards battled for supremacy.
Somehow, the enemy had penetrated the castle’s defenses, and now their home was being torn apart by Father and Mother’s desperate effort to fend off the attack of the dark ones. Lily had been awakened by the awful crash of her window bursting in at the first impact. She’d thrown on her robe and slid her feet into the warm, furry slippers she wore in winter. She was emerging from the bedroom into her sitting room when her twin brother had come running in.
He was still in his pajamas, his hair was a messy golden halo around his head, and his eyes were big and round with fear. She supposed that hers were, too. She raked her fingers through her long, blond hair, then pulled it back and twisted it into a knot at the nape of her neck. She didn’t have time to bind it properly, but she didn’t want it to get into her eyes at just the wrong moment.
“How do you think they broke through, Lily?” Trevor’s voice was shaking a bit, but Lily was proud of her brother’s control. He was thinking and asking the proper questions. It was too bad she had no answer to give.
“I don’t know, Trev,” she replied. “But it’s pretty obvious that they’ve done so.”
“Yes,” he said. “I wonder where Frau Golden is. Shouldn’t she be here, ordering us to stay put, or something?”
“She’s probably helping with the defense of the castle, Trevor. Which is what we should be doing.”
“Yes, you’re right, of course.” She saw the hesitation in his eyes, and took both of his hands in hers. She drew power into herself; a soft, blue glow enveloped her. She passed some of it to him, and the glow spread across the bond between them. Trevor was comforted, enfolded in her strength. In a moment, he returned the energy to her, and she in turn was comforted, completing the circuit. Now, they would be able to support one another in the face of whatever was to come.
Together, they left their rooms in the west wing and headed down the corridor toward the central keep and the stairs to the Great Hall. The Hall was two flights below and just inside the main gates, where the battle was almost certainly taking place.
Another loud concussion shook the castle. A statue of an Elf, one of the Elder Races, gone from the world since the Great Schism, toppled out of its niche in the wall and shattered on the marble floor. Lily was nearly thrown from her feet, but Trevor caught hold of her, and she kept her balance. She gave him a grateful look. Though they were very close, she and Trevor had their disagreements. He could be a real bother, but at times like this, she was glad to have him around.
They reached the stairs and started down, only to see Frau Golden rushing up toward them, a small pack dangling from each hand. Her white hair was bound tightly back in a tiny, dense bun that Lily thought must have been magically compressed, and her face was set in its usual disapproving frown.
“Children! You must turn right around immediately,” she ordered, in that brusque, no-nonsense-allowed tone of hers. “Your father has sent me to get you to safety. His Blackness has breached the walls.”
‘His Blackness’ was what Frau Golden called Myrddin Moridunum, the ancient enemy of her parents, Merlinus and Morgana LeFey Ambrosius. It was to defend the unsuspecting world from his evil that Father had decided to stay behind when the other folk of magic exiled themselves from the world of mundane humanity, and Mother had stayed to be with him.
“But Frau Golden,” Trevor protested, “we want to help. We can fight!”
“That may well be so, young man,” Frau Golden replied, “but your father has ordered otherwise.” She handed each of them a pack. “Now, turn around and get moving. There isn’t much time, and you must prepare, for I will not be going along with you.”
“Along with us?” Lily frowned at their nanny. “Where are we going? Are things that bad, then?”
“No more questions. Move!” She shooed them up the steps and back to their rooms. “Get dressed in your warmest things, children. Quickly, now; quickly!”
Trevor ran off to his room. Despite, and also because of the chill wind blowing through her bedroom, Lily began pulling thick riding clothes from her armoire, but she watched Frau Golden pacing the floor of her sitting room. She wore her usual expression, but Lily could see fear in her eyes. Things must have been going very badly, indeed. She felt the first stirrings of true fear in her own breast. What if Father and Mother were unable to fend off His Blackness? What if they were killed? What if—
Another booming concussion sent her stumbling against the doorframe, and Frau Golden’s eyes snapped up to her.
“Move yourself, Lily!” the nanny’s harsh command brought her back to herself. She realized that she had been standing still, staring at Frau Golden.
“This is no time for daydreaming, girl! Move!”
Lily moved. She got dressed in record time; Trevor was back before she had finished – dressed in his own winter riding clothes with his pack on his shoulders – but not long before. She shrugged into her own pack, and Frau Golden hustled them out the door and, instead of turning right toward the main keep, she turned them left, toward the rear of the castle.
“Where are we going, Frau Golden?” Lily knew that there was no way out of their home save by the front gate, and over the bridge that spanned the moat.
“Never mind, child; just do as I say. All that you need to know is that I am following your father’s orders.”
The sounds of the battle intensified, the crashes and booms sounding louder and more often, as she herded them along the corridor to the western stairs and down two flights to ground level, then down still more, past the food storage, the wine cellar, and down even further, to where the hallways were dark and smelled a bit like bad eggs.
The walls were bare here, undecorated, and the floor was plain granite, undressed with the marble parquet that adorned the upper floors. They were not level, either. They went downhill. Dust and bits of stone sprinkled her with every new explosion from above.
“Frau Golden,” said Trevor, “what if the tunnel falls down on us?”
“Then we will have nothing more to worry about, will we?” With flint and steel, Frau Golden lit a torch that hung in a wall sconce at the bottom of the last flight of stairs, and then took it and led them down into the darkness. ”In the meantime, however, we must keep going. Come along, children,” she said, “we’re almost there.” She picked up her pace, and they had to run to keep up.
Presently, Lily saw an orange glow somewhere up ahead, beyond the glow of the torch. It grew steadily brighter, until at last they emerged into a large chamber with walls of silver that cast distorted reflections of everything within. Their own reflections flowed across them like blobs of rainwater across the glass dome of the arboretum.
In the center of the chamber was a pool of lava, the source of the orange glow. Lily had never been allowed down here before, but she knew by the power she felt emanating from it that this was the Earthfont, the heart of Castle Ambrosia, and the source of her family’s power.
“Here we are, children,” said Frau Golden. “We have made it in time.” Her face was grim, but Lily could see tears in her hard, ice blue eyes. There was something wrong here, Lily thought, something beyond the obvious.
“In time for what, Frau Golden?”
Frau Golden looked at her, and understanding passed between them in the moment before the Earthfont chamber exploded with light and sound. The three of them were thrown to the floor by the concussion. Lily was struck deaf and blind. All was silent, but she could feel the vibrations of the thunderous sounds slamming through the room. All was bright white, but as the after-image of the flash slowly faded, the sight that greeted her was one that made her wish that her eyes had been forever burned out.
At the edge of the Earthfont, which was boiling and gushing madly, her parents, hand in hand, were enveloped in a writhing nest of blue-and-red snakes of combat energy with His Blackness himself, Myrddin Moridunum. His Blackness seemed to be winning. There was a grin on his handsome face as he forced them back, step by step. Their blue energy seemed to be faltering; it was as if he was somehow interfering with their connection to the Earthfont.
“Father! Mother!” His earlier fear seemingly forgotten, Trevor ran forward, his hands flaring with blue energy, his fingers weaving one of the few knots he had been taught, chéis a déenlos, the spell of lightning.
He cast the spell and a bolt of blue electricity cracked from the Earthfont to sizzle ineffectively across the nimbus of red power surrounding the evil wizard. Myrddin laughed and redoubled his efforts to overwhelm the two elder Ambrosius wizards.
They, however, were not so unaffected. Merlinus shouted, “Trevorus! Liliana! What are you doing here?” He shot a glance at Frau Golden. “Trudi! You were supposed to get them away from here! Why did you not use the talisman I gave you?”
Frau Golden was weeping, now. She looked at her feet and did not respond.
“Treachery!” Lily’s father yelled at her, “You helped him to breach the shield! How could you betray us, Trudi? We have treated you like family!”
“I am sorry, my lord,” Frau Golden wept. “He has my own family.”
“And he promised to return them to you if you betrayed us?” Even in the midst of her struggle for existence, Morgana LeFey Ambrosius spared a look of pity for Frau Golden. “Oh, Trudi. You have given your honor for nothing. Myrddin Moridunum never gives back a soul that he has taken.”
“Not so,” protested His Blackness. “I have promised to return Frau Golden’s family, and return it I shall. In fact, I have brought them with me. Behold.” From a region of gloom that appeared in the silver wall behind him, three people stepped into the Earthfont chamber: a man, a woman, and a little girl.
They shuffled toward Frau Golden, and Lily clamped her hands over her ears as their nanny began to scream. Their movements were lethargic and their joints were stiff. Their jaws hung slack, tongues squirming like worms in their open mouths. Where their eyes had been, gaping black sockets stared. “Franz! Hilda! Trudi!” Frau Golden shrieked. “Mein Gott! No! Noooooo!”
“Frau Golden! The talisman,” yelled Lily’s father, as Myrddin moved relentlessly toward them, and their blue energy sputtered and seemed in danger of cutting out completely. “Use it! Use it now!”
Frau Golden turned to Lily and Trevor and, without ceasing her screaming, took their hands and pressed them together over a silver medallion. Amongst her screams, she articulated the trigger phrase, chéis a ízvarron! Then she pushed them hard away from her, and they fell.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Lily and Trevor toppled backward. Her father and mother threw themselves into the wild tempest of lava. Lily gripped Trevor’s hand as their own screams drowned out those of Frau Golden.
An instant later, the two young wizards fell into the snow on the mountaintop next to the one on which Castle Ambrosia sat. As they watched, still screaming, in a flare of white light and a deafening clap of thunder, their home vanished from the face of the earth.
Lily’s eyes snapped open, the echoes of those long ago screams still reverberating in her ears.
Miss Lily Ambrosius was dying. She knew it quite well; indeed, she had chosen to meet death head-on, to face it down and allow her life to be spent in the pursuit of her family’s sacred trust. She believed in the afterlife; such a belief was a necessary component of her philosophy, and provided the one ray of hope that kept her firmly upon her chosen path. The thought that she would be reunited with Father, Mother and her dear Peter kept her to her duty, kept her resisting the will of the enemy, even when the pain was at its worst. As it was now.
She had sensed his presence here on her arrival several years ago, when the stagecoach bound for California had stopped over. She had been nagged by an intuition that the enemy had not perished; that he was here in America, somewhere. She heard of the silver rush in Colorado, and thought to pass through the area on the hunch that Myrddin would search out an analogous location to the one in the mountains of Germany where her family had had its nexus. If her feeling were simply a fantasy born of her nightmares, then she would continue on to California, and establish herself there.
She had felt him like an itch in the back of her brain; weak, then, unrecognizable for what he was. But a certainty had grown within her as she tried unsuccessfully to sleep in the rented hotel room. Myrddin had come here to nurse his wounds, to rest and recuperate before renewing his assault on the world. She decided to stay on, and searched out a place where she could establish her own power. She found the Earthfont and built this saloon above it. She became a citizen of this little town, and stayed here even after the silver boom had passed and most others had moved away. For one thing, she could not leave her place of power. For another, she had met Peter Burnley, the town’s Sheriff, and beyond all expectation, had fallen in love with him.
Their love had been Peter’s death warrant, for the enemy had discovered her presence. Myrddin had sent a minion to kill him, and in doing so, to set a trap for her. Though it was a subtle thing, she had seen the trap, and also the opportunity it presented. She had sprung it willingly, in order to strike at him in turn.
Now, he had his poison in her, but she had found, with the help of her dear, departed Peter, the key to the enemy’s ultimate destruction. Unfortunately, she could not take action to save herself without informing the enemy of his danger.
She fashioned the twin lockets, and after she had done so she had sent one to Trevor, with a last letter to try to convince him of the enemy’s presence here, and to ask him again to come and help her. If he should come, perhaps they could defeat the enemy in time to save her life. She could not attempt to hurry him by telling him of her danger, lest her secret be compromised if some minion of the enemy’s intercepted the letter. She could only hope that Trevor would feel the power with which she had invested the locket, and finally understand the truth.
She had asked him to come many times before, but Trevor had never even responded. He did not believe that the enemy could possibly have survived the annihilation of Castle Ambrosia, and he was still angry with her for insisting upon reserving their inheritance until she was sure the battle was indeed over. She couldn’t blame him for wanting to start a new life; she had to admit that it had seemed certain that Myrddin had perished with their parents. But, though she could not explain why, she had known better.
She could feel him now, growing stronger. The itch in her brain had grown to a buzz, like a nest of wasps in the bones of her skull. She was dying; the poison was allowing him to drain the very energy of her life.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on her bedroom door and the entrance of Sally Calico, her friend and the manager of her saloon.
“Morning, Lily. How are you feeling today?”
“Oh, I’m feeling just fine, Sally dear. Just fine.”
She gripped the locket on her breast, the twin to the one that she had sent to Trevor. As she watched Sally go about setting up her breakfast tray, Lily considered the girl. She was married to the town’s new Sheriff, Heath Burnley, who was the younger brother of her dear Peter. Their son was named after him.
As if her thought had summoned him, the little boy came running into the room and climbed up to perch on the edge of her bed.
“Mornin’, Aunt Lily.”
“Good morning, dear. It’s so nice of you to drop in to see me.” Of course, she wasn’t really his aunt, but it was a pleasant fiction that she highly valued. She stroked the boy’s cheek with a hand that looked far too old to belong to her. The toddler smiled, and she could see the ghost of his true uncle in his angelic face.
“Can you tell me a story, Aunt Lily? One of the ones with the knights and dragons and stuff?”
“Aunt Lily is probably too tired to be telling stories to young scamps, Pete,” said Sally, with a smile to soften her words.
“Well, now, I don’t know about that,” she replied, though she did know, and she was too tired, “but I have something here that might spark a young boy’s imagination so that he could make up some stories of his very own.” With a dramatic flourish of her hands that hid the little weave she tied, Lily brought forth from her storage place a thing from her childhood, the only treasure she had packed in her knapsack the day her home had disappeared.
Little Pete’s eyes grew wide as she opened her palms to reveal a little silver figurine: a knight in armor, mounted upon a charging warhorse, his long, sharp lance lowered to skewer some foe.
“This is a toy that I used to play with when I was a little girl. My parents thought it unseemly that a girl should play with such a thing, and make up fanciful stories about an adventurous knight. They ordered me to dispose of it, but I kept it, secretly.”
“It’s real pretty, Aunt Lily.”
“Do you think you could dream of stories about Sir Knight?”
“Sure! Um,” he paused, his eyes riveted to the figure, ”what’s Sir Knight’s name?”
“Ah, that, I may not tell, for if I did, it would lose its magic. Each of his owners must name him, and keep that name a secret from all others, so that Sir Knight’s magic will live on.” Slowly, carefully, she placed the figure into Little Pete’s hands. There was the smallest blink of blue energy as it passed from her keeping into his.
Lily lay back on her pillows and smiled. “Now, go off and have grand adventures with your new liegeman, good King Peter. Have a care with his lance; it is very sharp.”
“Thanks, Aunt Lily!” With a quick hug and a peck on her cheek, Little Pete climbed down from her bed and ran off, galloping Sir Knight at his side.
“Lily, you shouldn’t spoil the child so,” said Sally, as she came over to fluff up Lily’s pillows.
“Why, Sally,” she said, “isn’t that what grandmothers and aunties are supposed to do?”
Sally smiled, and together they listened for a moment to the sound of Little Pete trotting up and down the hall.
Sally was a strong girl, and loyal to her. She would be a good choice, Lily thought, as good a choice as any she could make, though she knew that any of the mundane folk would be sorely tried by such a thing.
This time, Trevor would come; she knew it in her heart. But if he did not come soon enough, Sally would have to bear her burden. She very much hoped that it would not come to that.
Hurry, Trevor, she thought. Hurry, please.