The Divine Talisman
Note: The following excerpt contains
spoilers from Book Two, The Obsidian Key.
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
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
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
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
A soul gripped in the mandibles of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."
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