Bane of Malekith, p.1William King
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This is a dark age, a bloody age, an age of daemons and of sorcery. It is an age of battle and death, and of the world’s ending. Amidst all of the fire, flame and fury it is a time, too, of mighty heroes, of bold deeds and great courage.
These are bleak times. Across the length and breadth of the Old World, from the heartlands of the human Empire and the knightly palaces of Bretonnia to ice-bound Kislev in the far north, come rumblings of war. In the towering Worlds Edge Mountains, the orc tribes are gathering for another assault. Bandits and renegades harry the wild southern lands of the Border Princes. There are rumours of rat-things, the skaven, emerging from the sewers and swamps across the land. And from the northern wildernesses there is the ever-present threat of Chaos, of daemons and beastmen corrupted by the foul powers of the Dark Gods.
An ancient and proud race, the high elves hail from Ulthuan, a mystical island of rolling plains, rugged mountains and glittering cities. Ruled over by the noble Phoenix King, Finubar, and the Everqueen, Alarielle, Ulthuan is a land steeped in magic, renowned for its mages and fraught with blighted history. Great seafarers, artisans and warriors, the high elves protect their ancestral homeland from enemies near and far. None more so than from their wicked kin, the dark elves, against whom they are locked in a bitter war that has lasted for centuries.
The wizard looked over the gameboard at Death. ‘You are not real,’ he said.
‘Come now, Caledor,’ said Death. ‘You are in no position to cast aspersions. After all, you are dead.’
The wizard touched the place where his heart should have been. There was no beat. He placed his hand over his mouth. He did not breathe. He touched his wrist. There was no pulse.
A small fragment of knowledge came back to him. He had died a long, long time ago, trying to save the world. He had died slowly, in great pain, while trying to work powerful magic.
Caledor – his name had been Caledor once, when he had walked among the living and still had use for such a thing. He had not known that until Death had mentioned it. He could remember almost nothing else about himself, but it was good to have a name once more. It was a beginning, something he could build on.
‘Nonetheless,’ Caledor said, ‘you are not real.’
Death raised a long pale hand and removed his ivory mask. He knuckled the hollow space below his eye and he let out a long patient sigh that seemed to go on forever, as was the nature of even the least of the actions of gods. ‘I suppose you are going to argue about the nature of a reality that allows you to be dead and yet be aware of my existence and of your own. You are one of those for whom there is no afterlife, only a negation, a non-being.’
‘Not at all,’ said Caledor. ‘I merely doubt the reality of this whole experience.’
‘Living things have been doing that since the world began,’ said Death. ‘I am surprised that you, of all the elves, should be so unoriginal.’
‘Why am I here?’ Caledor asked.
‘You are here to play the Great Game and decide the fate of the world.’
Caledor considered Death’s words as he considered Death himself. The dark god had taken the form of a tall elf, very pale of skin. His nails were black. His teeth were black. His eyes were pools of infinite darkness. He wore robes of spider silk the colour of the black grapes from the vineyards of the furthest south. On those robes, in silver thread, were inscribed the runes of all the names by which the elves knew him: Khaela Mensha Khaine. This was the Reaper of Souls, the Ender of Worlds.
Propped against the side of Death’s chair, unscabbarded, was a tall black sword that Caledor had seen before, although it had not then been borne by Death. Hideous runes glittered on its blade. The remnants of the souls it had devoured clung to the naked metal in a scummy crust. It was an evil blighted thing, its aura of matchless malignity noticeable even in this odd place and even while the blade was quiescent. Caledor could not look at it for too long without feeling queasy.
Instead he studied the game. It looked something like chess but was played on a larger and infinitely more complex board. The squares each contained Slann runes pregnant with mystical meaning, symbols that governed the magic of time and space.
It was hard to tell the board’s true size. Each square was like a hole in reality that looked out into some other section of creation. The patterns were not like that of a chessboard at all. The squares, the focal points of the action, were not beside each other. They floated in the air at different levels. They were connected by lines, ellipses– the whole mass of squares lay amid concentric circles which had their own mystical significance.
He knew somehow that each square represented a specific place, some of which he had known in life, some of which had been created since his death. This gameboard was a map of a very specific reality. There was an underlying pattern to it that he felt he could grasp if only he was given time.
As above, so below, whispered a small distant part of his mind. What we change here, we change in the true world. This map not only represents the terrain, in some strange way it is the terrain.
The game was already in progress. Pieces that represented kings and queens, wizards, demi-gods and daemons were already in motion. Some of them lay beside the board, removed by the effect of earlier moves. Just as the squares represented real places, the pieces represented real people.
Death’s pieces were carved from bone ivory, of course. His own pieces were made of silver and gold. Many more of his than of Death’s were gone. It was obvious to even the most cursory inspection that he was losing.
He knew that it was very important that he win. If he failed here, his world fell too and his entire life, his death and the deaths of all his friends would have been in vain.
Despair filled him. He was no player. Not the way Aenarion had been.
Aenarion. That was another name he had once known. Aenarion had been there when he had died. He had died himself shortly thereafter. Looking over at the sword, it came to him where he had seen it before. It had been Aenarion’s once, a long time ago, in that different world the gameboard represented. In the world they had died trying to save.
He saw a resemblance in Khaine’s features to Aenarion’s. Aenarion had been half a god himself. Perhaps they were related. Or perhaps this was something else entirely. He was not sure what, but he knew it was as well to question all of his assumptions here.
‘You are considering your move,’ Death said.
‘No. I am remembering Aenarion,’ said Caledor.
Death smiled. ‘He was my greatest servant.’
Even lacking all the knowledge that had made him what he was, Caledor sensed the lie in that. ‘A
‘He bore my sword.’
‘That still does not mean he served you. It was a tool which he used.’
‘Perhaps you are right,’ said Death. ‘Let me rather say that his aims and mine coincided for a while.’
Caledor did not have the energy to argue. Death picked up the piece that represented Aenarion from where it lay beside the board. It was old now, marked by age, its surface rubbed away in places. It might have been tarnished silver or grubby ivory. It was difficult to tell.
‘He was a very great killer,’ said Death. ‘Even the greater daemons, the firstborn children of Chaos, feared him.’
Looking down at the board, Caledor could see that a couple of his own pieces had similar features to the ones Death wore. One of them was tall, broad-shouldered and golden. Looking at the piece, Caledor saw him as he was in life. He could have been Aenarion reborn, but a smiling, good-natured Aenarion, without the weight of care that had always bowed the broad back of the first Phoenix King.
Tyrion, Caledor thought. That was this piece’s name. Tyrion, son of Arathion of the line of Aenarion. Looking at Tyrion’s face now, he could see it was twisted with uncharacteristic worry. He was wearing the armour of the druchii, which was not natural for him, for he was an asur, a high elf. It was a distinction that had not existed when Caledor had been alive.
Beside Tyrion was a woman of glorious beauty, whose life too had been touched by the power of a god. The piece that represented this woman’s mother had already been removed from the board. She was a pawn promoted, a new Everqueen. This was all part of the pattern, he told himself, and he needed to understand it, as he needed to understand what was happening to him.
Before you can rule others, you must first rule yourself.
It was a law of wizardry and more than wizardry. Another fragment of memory bubbled to the surface of his mind. He remembered Aenarion talking to the young Malekith in the great armed camp at Skaggerak. The child had thrown a tantrum and his father, with a tender patience so different from the attitude he displayed in his dealings with all others, was explaining that law to his young son. Caledor remembered that even at the time he had found it ironic. Aenarion had been incapable of the least restraint, resented anything or anyone that tried to baulk his wishes.
Malekith was there upon the board now, no longer a small, watchful boy but a towering, terrifying armoured figure that reeked of death and ancient dark magic. He had turned out badly then. The thought saddened Caledor because he fondly remembered the child. Still, how could he have turned out differently, with two parents such as Aenarion and Morathi; a more self-centred, doom-torn pair of elves had never lived.
Morathi was still on the board too, as wickedly seductive as ever. She did not appear to have aged in all the long ages since Caledor’s death. She was still much as he remembered her: dark-haired, sinuously lovely. Like every other elf who had ever looked upon her, he felt the erotic power of her beauty.
Unlike most of them, he could see exactly how much of it came from sorcery. Spells glittered in the air about her, obscuring her true self. Over the millennia a patina of evil magic had crusted around her. As with the Sword of Khaine, the residue of the souls she had devoured clung to her. In her case, they were the fuel for the spell that kept her alive.
She always had a great gift for magic, Caledor thought. More than that, there was a power in her. That which let her look into hell and the future had other side effects too. He could catch the resonance of her thoughts concerning him.
Do you watch me, old ghost? Do you shiver at the thought of what I do?
Caledor did not shiver. He was no longer capable of it. All he could do was watch, appalled, as she tried to destroy his great work once again. All elves were selfish, but she took it to an extreme. She was prepared to murder a world so that she could live forever.
Had she always been this bad, Caledor wondered, or had the madness slipped on her over the centuries? Did her son realise what she was up to? Perhaps he did, judging by the company he kept now.
Malekith was accompanied by something even worse than his mother, a daemon Caledor had known of in ancient times, a creature responsible for the destruction of half a continent and the killing of countless elves.
N’Kari, it was called. The piece on the board was a huge, four-armed monstrous thing, the sort of daemon that the texts referred to as a Keeper of Secrets. The vision that entered Caledor’s mind was of a beautiful elven woman, chained by magic that might have bound a god. Malekith had indeed grown in power if he could do that.
Something told Caledor that this daemon was important, that its presence on the board was one of the reasons why Death was doing so well and he was doing so badly. It should not have been there.
‘Are you going to move?’ Death asked. ‘Need I remind you that we are playing to a time limit, and that you forfeit the game if we do not complete it before the sands of time run out?’
Death indicated the hourglass that sat beside the table. Caledor could not remember it being there before. Perhaps Death’s gesture had called it into being.
‘I do not like this game,’ said Caledor. ‘It seems all the rules are stacked in your favour.’
‘If you do not like the game, why did you agree to play?’
That was a good question. Why was he sitting here, playing an unbeatable opponent at a game he had no hope of winning?
‘I had no choice,’ he said at last. ‘Nothing that lives does.’
‘You had a choice,’ said Death. ‘You least of all can claim you were forced into this. You started the game when you created the board, wizard.’
Caledor reclaimed another part of his memory. The board was, at least in part, a representation of the vast spell he had woven over six thousand years ago and which had trapped him in this limbo. They were in the place where he had died, at the exact centre of the Vortex.
Contained within that truth was another one, a truth he was not yet prepared to face. It was still too terrible for him to contemplate.
Caledor picked up one of his pieces, the other one that resembled Aenarion. It was made of moon-silver. Teclis, this one was called. He blazed with power, power almost as great as that Caledor had wielded himself once, even though this one had been born into a world of far less magic. Teclis was Tyrion’s twin, although physically they were nothing alike.
As he touched the piece he recalled other things. He had spoken to this Teclis before, had reached out to him through the Vortex and through other things. He had spoken to him of magic, the fate of the world, and of secrets long hidden and now become important once more.
He knew then how he could influence events and where. He could sense those who were close to the Vortex and close to the things he had once created. With this one, as with Morathi, there was something else. This one had studied Caledor’s work, had deciphered its patterns and held them in his mind. This had set up a resonance of sympathetic magic between them.
‘You have touched the piece, do you intend to move it?’ Death asked.
Indecisively, Caledor returned the piece to the board. ‘No. Not yet.’
‘Waste all the time you wish. The sands of time are running out.’
Caledor glanced again at Death and at the powers arrayed against him. A daemon, a dark lord and a would-be divinity. They had all grown stronger over the millennia and he had grown weaker. Even at his mightiest he would have been hard put to stand against any one of them. Now, in order to preserve what he had made, he needed to defeat them all.
It was not a matter of power, he told himself. It was a matter of intelligence and strategy and the ability to think ahead. Even there he was at a disadvantage. Who had ever out-thought Death? Malekith was one of the greatest generals in history. Morathi could see the future.
There was nothing to be gained by complaining. Some things simply had to be done. He gathered the tattered remnants of his once near-immeasurable strength to him and raised the piec
‘Come then, Ender of Worlds,’ Caledor said, placing Tyrion decisively in his new position. ‘Let us play.’
All around them the ancient forest burned. Shadows danced like mad ghosts at a daemonic revel. The air reeked of the fiery death of trees older than empires. The shrieks of the dying, the raped and the tortured mingled with the roar of the flames.
Instinct screamed at Tyrion to put as much distance between themselves and those awful sounds as they could while night lasted.
Those were his people being put to the sword. Those screaming voices belonged to asur, high elves. Their blood enemies, the druchii, had come upon them in the night. If he had not rescued Alarielle from the grasp of the dark elf general, the Everqueen herself would be in the hands of her most deadly enemies.
They needed to get out of here now, to flee, so that she might be spared capture and humiliation by her foes. That was the reason to run.
He glanced across at the Everqueen. He doubted that anyone would have recognised her as the proud and beautiful ruler of Avelorn now. Like him, she was garbed as a druchii soldier. Her face was bruised and her body blood-spattered. Her green eyes held fear and a courage that kept that fear contained, if only just.
Until a few hours ago she had been the pampered ruler of her people. The only fighting she had seen was at tournaments where warriors fought for her favour. Yesterday, he had been one of those warriors, if an ambivalent one, fighting in the great tournament to be her champion.
Today the position seemed to have fallen to him by default. All of the others sworn to her protection were dead, killed by a druchii army which had somehow, impossibly, managed to erupt into the very heart of the forest kingdom of Avelorn without any warning being given.
Other sounds interrupted the shrieks of torment – the blaring of horns and the bellowing of orders. Pursuit was being organised. He needed to get Alarielle to safety. Another chilling thought struck him. If a dark elf army could reach the heart of Avelorn, where else could it reach? Perhaps no place was safe any more.
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