the Divine Talisman
Book Three of the Legend of Asahiel
The creature sprang with a rabid snarl, moving quickly to cut off their escape. No longer elven, it bounded after them with the lust of a maddened predator, tearing through brush and forest limbs, feral eyes blind to all but the thrill of its impending kill.
Laressa stumbled and went to one knee. She screamed for her daughter to run on, then spun to meet their pursuer’s final charge. A pair of blades shone darkly in the moonlight, slick with blood and thirsting for more. She looked past them, focused on her assailant’s eyes as she gripped the wellstone hung from her wrist. Raising it like a shield in the palm of her hand, she bid its power forth.
Light flared and crackled in a thin, forked streamer. Fearing she was too late, Laressa closed her own eyes and threw herself aside, hearing at the same time her daughter’s scream.
Upon a tangled bed of vine and root, Laressa’s entire body clenched, bracing for the inevitable. She could smell the Illychar’s fetid breath, and sense the creature’s hatred. After millennia of imprisonment, it would not be denied.
But the terrible moment passed, and still the daggers did not bite. Though her heartbeat was like a drum in her ears, she heard now her killer’s snarls of frustration. When she opened her eyes, she found it staggering about, sniffing and blinking in confusion, too disoriented to find its quarry a mere pace away. As it slashed aimlessly at the surrounding foliage, its growls of disappointment gave way to howls of rage.
Laressa hurried to regain her feet. The release would not grant her much time. And even if its effect were to last forever, she had by no means escaped the peril gnashing all around her.
Her next concern was not for herself, however, but for her daughter. She cast about frantically, trying to remember from which direction she had heard the young maiden scream. No easy task, given the chorus of shrieks and caterwauls that rent the night. She had worried upon hearing it that the child had witnessed her fall and meant to return to her. Now, she wished for just that.
That hope, like so many others this night, was engulfed by the horrifying truth. Laressa had managed just a few strides when her desperate search came to an abrupt end. Her daughter’s flight had been swift, but no elf was going to outrun a goblin—least of all a pair of the creatures Illysp-possessed and lying in ambush.
Laressa jerked to a halt as she watched the batlike fiends shred their victim. Part jackals, part whirlwind, they tore at the bloody pulp with hooked teeth and barbed claws, scrambling over and atop one another, painting themselves and the earth red. Laressa told herself that the writhing mass beneath was not—could not possibly be—her daughter. Then the victim arched sharply, and their eyes met.
One of those eyes was missing. The other was wide, its emerald ring drowning against a blood-filled white. Tresses of red-gold hair hung matted and torn. But through them, the lone eye still saw. An arm reached out, covered in deep lacerations, and the mouth opened in a soundless cry. A plea for mercy. An expression of unspeakable pain.
Laressa matched that cry with a terrible, bloodcurdling wail that peaked momentarily above the cacophony. One of the goblins looked to her with a blood-spattered maw. In the next instant, she sent a brilliant bolt of scintillating light smashing into it, igniting it. It screeched as it flew through the air to lie in a charred heap. The other spun away, a black funnel cloud in the moonlit darkness. The light struck it from behind, and the beast disintegrated in an explosive burst of red fire.
Laressa Solymir, keifer of the elven nation of Finloria, crumbled then, her strength and power spent. As she landed upon her knees, her gaze fell upon the wellstone in her palm, the multifaceted crystal gone dark. Her protection against the enemy was gone. She had nothing left with which to defend herself from the bestial darkness come to lay claim.
Looking once more upon her only child, Laressa welcomed its approach.
Somehow, without even realizing it, she crawled forward to kneel at her daughter’s side. The girl’s mouth groped uselessly, vocal cords torn. Her remaining eye shone with anguish and fright. Laressa knew she had to finish it, but she could not find the strength.
A bloody hand found hers, clamped itself over the wellstone.
Laressa sobbed as the crystal whitened, fed by the child’s remaining life strength. Her daughter could only give so much. With tears in her eyes, Laressa forced herself to draw the rest.
A moment, and it was done.
All around, the slaughter continued. Hers was but one of a thousand such agonies suffered this night. She could hear the Illychar sweeping through the forest from all angles, feeding with ravenous delight. The screams of her people did not lie. Before the break of dawn, the once-proud Finlorian nation would be no more. Doomed to a fate they had foolishly thought to avoid. Sentenced to die at the hands of the most relentless enemy their world had ever known.
And it had been her duty to prevent it.
The thought angered Laressa. Despite her guilt, despite her pain, that fury lent her strength enough to do what was required. She gripped her wellstone, calling upon its power to light a blaze beneath her daughter’s remains. The energy she had drawn from the child was barely enough, and left the stone dark and empty once more. But Laressa would not fail her daughter so completely as to allow her to become an Illychar herself.
When it was over, the finality of what she had done drove Laressa to her feet. Blinded by tears, she ran from the horror, ran from the pain. She ran from the folly, the nearsightedness, that had led to this calamity. She ran from what she had done, and from what she had failed to do.
All around her, the woods thrashed with Illychar pursuit. Their lusty howls mocked her efforts. She sensed their dark forms, hunting her with darker intent. All had been trampled and destroyed, or soon would be. The Illysp knew no other way.
She tripped then and pitched to the ground, gasping for breath, only to choke on a mouthful of dirt. Her heart pounded. From ahead now, and from either side, enemies approached. She was surrounded, defeated. Laressa was too heartsick to care.
Nevertheless, when the first of the Illychar reached her, she cried out, horrified by its frigid touch upon her back. Rolling to the side, she called upon her wellstone’s magic, even though there was nothing left. A moment later, she was glad the release had failed, for as she glanced up, her fury was swept away by a wave of relief.
She blinked vigorously, then stared. Eolin, her husband, had come for her. In this, her blackest hour, he had returned to help shield and sustain her. His hand reached out. Even now, his face shone with wisdom and love.
Tears of joy mixed with those of torment as Laressa allowed him to pull her to her feet. Throwing her arms about his neck, she wept in his ear, begging his forgiveness while confessing all: the warnings ignored, her arrogance in thinking them safe, her inability to protect their child . . . She held nothing back, for here was someone with whom to share her agony and failures, someone who could soothe her fears, someone . . .
. . . who had not yet returned her embrace.
A knot of sickening dread stole Laressa’s breath, as her wracked mind suddenly recalled that Eolin had been murdered weeks ago. Before she could stop, convince herself that she did not want to know, her jaw lifted, forcing her gaze to meet her husband’s eyes. Immediately she recognized the pain therein—the ultimate anguish of an enslaved soul.
A soul gripped in the mandibles of possession.
Eolin’s features seemed to melt, his face shriveling into a blackened death mask. The Illychar smiled, as if laughing at the cries of its body’s former spirit, and lifted a single hand.
Laressa screamed as it found her throat.
* * *
She awoke with a start, shivering through a cold sweat as she inhaled sharply of the musky air. Just like that, she was back in her denzaan, her burrow home, safe beneath the earth. Even so, she lunged reflexively for the bracelet that lay upon her bedside table, clutching its wellstone in her palm. Drawing upon the energy stored within that central crystal, she began to calm, her pulse to slow. All at once, the savage images were receding. The Illychar, the devastation, Eolin’s possession—all faded swiftly from mental view.
Small comfort. For Laressa knew they would return.
She hung her head, fighting to steady her breathing. In doing so, she remained careful not to close her eyes, lest the phantom horrors be resummoned before they had fully dispersed. She had not the strength to confront them again.
Yet she would have to, she knew. Though she did all she could these days to avoid it, she had to sleep at some point. And when she did, the nightmares would be waiting.
It had been that way for three weeks now, ever since the visit of the one called Torin—the one whose coming had ended her life as she had known it, and left behind this cruel emptiness for her to endure in its stead. For it was his quest that had brought on the rest: Crag’s betrayal, Warrlun’s retribution, Eolin’s murder . . .
Her eyes did close then, seeking to deny a reality every bit as horrible as her dreams. It was the former that had spawned the latter. There was no escape, in sleep or in waking, from her agonies. The only question seemed to be which would lay final claim to her broken spirit.
It would happen soon. The dreams had been growing stronger, more intense, every night. At this rate, madness lay just around the corner.
A welcome relief, some part of her whispered, should it find her before the Illysp.
Drawing several steadying breaths, Laressa slipped from beneath her covers, leaving her wellstone bracelet to hang upon her wrist. As her feet brushed upon the moss that carpeted her earthen bedchamber, its life sent unspoken assurances through her skin. But for how long? How long did even the flowers and trees and grasses have once there was no one left to care for them? For she had seen the end in her dreams, the twisted landscapes of utter desolation, where lonely winds whistled through bare canyons of blackened stone. Where the heavens wept over the charred remains of a blistered earth. It would take centuries, eons maybe, for it to reach that point, for the Illychar to eradicate even themselves. Yet such was the inevitable outcome of their unchallenged reign. Eolin, and then the dreams, had told her so.
She sat for a moment at the edge of her woven bed, her head in her hands, wishing now that Eolin had died before he had shared with her the truth of the Vandari and their legacy. In passing that information on to her with his dying breaths, he had made her the final bearer of that knowledge. He had not done so to burden her with guilt—had begged her, in fact, to let any resulting failure rest with him alone. But there was no separating the two. Laressa, not Eolin, was now last of the Vandari, defender of the Swords of Asahiel and keeper of the secrets of the Illysp War.
The fate of all rested in her hands.
And yet, what could she do? Eolin had had his reasons for refusing to join Torin’s crusade, none of which had changed with his untimely death. His bitterness toward the humans that had come to beg his aid was shared by all Finlorians, and with good reason. Why should her people risk themselves to help those who had hunted them to near extinction? Aside from that, their powers of magic were no more—or at least, those of the kind Torin had been seeking. She had knowledge only—of a secret history, yes, but if Torin had been sent by a scion of the Entient Algorath, as claimed, then surely the young king already knew everything she might share. And lastly, even if her people wished to help the humans, and possessed the required powers, how was she to reach them while trapped in this valley by her father’s armies?
She had gone over it in her mind for weeks now. Even while grieving, even while wishing upon Torin and his friends the fate they deserved, she had been thinking it through, in search of what she could do—if not to protect them, then to protect her own people. For this was not a menace that would be satisfied with laying claim to the shores upon which it had been born. Its cravings were too primitive, too bestial to ever be sated. It would hunger, and it would grow, and no matter the obstacle, it would find a way to spread.
“Mother, you promised you would sleep.”
Laressa spun, startled by the voice. In the near darkness of her denzaan’s bedchamber, she could scarcely see the outline of the figure that stood upon her threshold.
“I tried, child.”
Her daughter touched one of the exposed root tendrils that dangled from the ceiling, coaxing forth more light. Its brightened glow revealed youthful skin, emerald eyes, and long tresses of delicate blond hair. Despite the welcome sight, Laressa flinched, seeing for a moment that same face torn apart by goblin Illychar, contorted by suffering as her life’s energy drained away into her mother’s wellstone . . .
“You had another nightmare,” Annleia presumed, her concern evident as she stepped forward.
Denial was useless. Most likely, she had been awakened, as on previous nights, by her mother’s screams.
Annleia sat down beside her and took her hand. “Was it about Father?”
Laressa winced. She meant Eolin, of course, her adoptive father—the only father she had ever known. But Laressa could not help but think of Warrlun, the child’s birth father—he who had taken Eolin’s life in reprisal for a perceived wrong.
Annleia reached up to feel her forehead. “Are you ready to speak of it?”
She was not. Nor did she think she ever would be. It was unfair, of course. The child deserved to know the full truth behind her father’s death. She deserved to know who Warrlun really was, and what had driven him to commit such a savage act. On top of that, she deserved to know about the peril she and the rest of their people faced, in order to come to terms with it in her own way.
But Laressa could not bring herself to share such grave news with anyone—least of all the one true love she had left in this world. To even think of exposing her precious child to these afflicting horrors was more than she could bear.
And yet, how long could she hold out? Annleia and the others who dwelled within this valley already suspected much. Their keifer had been murdered by none other than an agent of Lord Lorre—led here by the lone individual entrusted to serve as guardian to their lands. Given that, how could they think themselves safe?
Rather than confirm their fears, Laressa had done what she could to allay them. Crag’s betrayal had wounded her more deeply than any of them, and none could argue otherwise. At the same time, the Tuthari dwarf had made sure that none would be able to follow his trail. Shallow grounds for forgiveness, perhaps, given the damage already sustained. But the dwarf had had his reasons, she had argued. Her life being not without its own misdeeds, she was in poor position to judge another’s.
“If you wish to be free of your grief,” Annleia admonished, “you cannot keep it trapped inside.”
Laressa nodded, but refused to meet her daughter’s gaze. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to be free of it. In some ways, her grief seemed the only way to keep Eolin alive. Though it went against many of the fundamental life principles of her Finlorian people, she was not yet ready to surrender her temporal claim upon the man she had loved.
“You cannot persist like this. Our people need you.”
Laressa responded with a look of annoyance before quickly turning away. The girl was only trying to help, not knowing that this matter was beyond her. Or was it? If the truth was more than her daughter could handle, then why was she so afraid to meet the young woman’s gaze? Could it be that she feared Annleia might be too perceptive, that if she shared even one small thread, the girl might unravel the rest? Perhaps it was not her daughter’s weakness but her own that kept her silent.
“In time, child. I will be well enough in time.”
Annleia must have heard the doubt in her voice. “You cannot deceive me, Mother. Nor can you expect to shoulder this burden alone.”
Again Laressa tried to evade the other’s gaze. But the child hooked a finger beneath her chin and forced their eyes to meet. Eolin, Laressa told herself. She speaks only of Eolin.
“Your father was a good man,” she forced herself to say, in an attempt to escape the other’s scrutiny.
“The best,” Annleia agreed. “But you are also angry with him. Why?”
Laressa put on her most indignant expression, even as she caught her breath. “I . . . Why would you say that?”
“Because I know you as well as you know yourself. I sense it, in your words and in your posture—with me and with others. Do you feel he brought this somehow upon himself?”
Eolin himself had raised that argument, though it was not one Laressa shared. He had viewed his death as a punishment for allowing bitterness to overrule duty—for taking delight in Torin’s travails. He should not have spurned the outlander as he had. He should have at least talked things through with the wielder of the Crimson Sword, to confirm what the other knew and offer any solution Torin and his allies might have missed.
Laressa had not cared to debate the issue at the time. Bad enough that their final moments had been spent revealing secrets that should never have been kept from her. Worse yet would have been to waste breath arguing over what to do about them, and whether her husband’s fate was deserved.
“I blame your father’s murder on none but those who committed it,” she stated plainly.
And yet, that had not stopped her from accepting Eolin’s suggested action. It made no sense to let her people perish as a result of their contempt—justified or no. And while a proper sharing of knowledge with Torin may have merited nothing, there was too much at stake not to take the chance.
By then, however, it had been too late. Her first act as keifer had been to send forth scouts on the trail of Torin and his friends—even before she had overcome the raw sting of her grief. But Torin’s departure from their lands had been swift; Crag had seen to that. And her scouts had been strictly ordered not to jeopardize themselves by treading beyond the exits of the caves that led from Aefengaard. In accordance with her wishes, they had followed as far as they dared, only to return empty-handed.
“Then why do you torture yourself over what is done?” Annleia asked, refusing to let her dwell alone in her thoughts.
She had not, at first. When the news had returned that Torin had escaped their reach, Laressa had decided it just as well that they be rid of him forever. But that had been before the nightmares, before the roiling waves of heartache had subsided enough to reveal the truth.
“Mother, what is it you’re not telling me?”
Laressa felt the threat of tears, of pride and of pity. Not yet twenty years of age, this girl, and already so wise and strong. The child might not have survived with anything less. Though born within this valley, she was an outsider in many respects—the daughter of a half-elven woman and a human male she knew nothing about. In this world, her mixed heritage was a scar, no matter how much they might pretend otherwise. The Finlorians had accepted her out of deference to their king, just as they had Laressa when, as a prince, Eolin had brought her to live among them. Since then, she had taught Annleia not to condemn herself, as others might, for her unique appearance. Human blood may have deprived her of sharpened ears, angled brow, and a pointed jawline. It may have granted her a full head of thick, lustrous hair. But it could never change the fact that she was an elf at heart. In the end, nothing else truly—
Laressa choked on the thought and pulled away in horror. So obvious. The solution to her dilemma. The answer to her prayers. There in front of her, where it had been all along.
“Mother, what is it?”
No. She would not allow herself to even consider it. They still had the Sword, did Torin and the others, the last unbroken Sword of Asahiel. With it, they would find a way. Anyone who could have hunted the Finlorians here, to their secret location, was resourceful enough to put a stop to the Illysp on his own. As long as he wielded both the divine talisman and the knowledge descended from Algorath, the human king of Alson stood a chance. As did they all.
But Laressa knew she could not leave it at that. For the sake of her people, for the sake of her own sanity, she had to know that something more was being done. Whatever the act, wherever it might lead, however useless and inconsequential the effort might seem, she could not sit idly by if it was within her power to help.
The smooth, earthen walls of her burrow seemed to close in around her. It was the only way. These walls could not protect her. Nor could the walls of their valley protect her people. If they remained here and did nothing, Aefengaard would become as a mass grave. And a temporary one at that, as, with the Illysp, not even the dead were safe.
Slowly, as if dragging against the weight of the world, Laressa turned once more to peer into her daughter’s eyes. The truth was affirmed, and her heart fell. It would seem her people were not quite as powerless as she had believed. All she needed was someone who could pass for human when set to rove the barbaric world of men.
Tears welled. She could not allow it. She could not permit her daughter, so innocent and fragile, to venture into the outer world. Not when any escort Laressa might send—herself included—would only endanger the child further. Alone and unprotected, the girl would surely perish, and, for Laressa, nothing could be so devastating. She had already lost her husband. She would be damned before letting go of her daughter as well.
She meant to look away again, but Annleia squeezed her hand, and those emerald eyes held her. Again Laressa had to fight off the nightmare image of those eyes as the living light left them. Should she send the girl on this quest, she would be condemning her—because of her appearance, no less. And yet, could keeping her here end in anything but a death sentence?
Annleia remained silent, the child’s luminous eyes seeming to bore right through her. Perhaps it was not her decision to make, Laressa thought suddenly. Should her daughter not be given a chance to at least discuss her own fate? She was not so young, Laressa reminded herself—nearly the same age she had been when deciding to leave her father and run away with Eolin to live among the Finlorians. How might she have felt had Lorre or anyone else successfully prevented her from making that choice?
Besides, she did not wish to wait, as Eolin had, to deliver these secrets with her final breaths. Though she had sworn no oath, and inherited their cause only through marriage and catastrophe, she understood the sacred honor of the Vandari and what they had been called upon to do. Rather than risk letting their secrets die with her, perhaps she should share them now. Armed with a full knowledge, her daughter might even recognize a solution that she had not. Either way, Laressa would not be alone in deciding upon the best course for all concerned.
Even now, she could scarcely imagine exposing her child to such terrible responsibility. But Annleia’s eyes seemed to challenge her, pleading for her to trust in her daughter’s strength.
The Ceilhigh only knew how little she had left of her own.
Breathing deeply to steady herself, Laressa stared warningly into her child’s brave visage, offering her one last chance to escape before the truth descended upon her.
Annleia’s eyes shone. Tell me, they seemed to insist.
“Dear child,” Laressa sighed, and all at once, her courage began to stir. “Let me tell you a story.”