2000: Britannian Serial: Part 3: Indomitable Conscience


The Prequel Legends: Britannian Serial: Part 3: Indomitable Conscience

Author: Austen Andrews Published: 2000

The sitting room was more opulent than any other in Britannia. Its lavish paintings and goldenwood panels, extravagantly carved, spoke of generations of devoted craftsmanship. Rich tapestries wove ancient tales in their lush designs. Silver and crystal glittered among the room's details, flashing in the glow of an enormous, blazing hearth.

In the center of the room sat Blackthorn, dressed in a tunic of the richest black silk. Gold trim echoed the firelight. His fingers were steepled before his face. With no trace of a smile he murmured, "You do keep a fine dungeon, British."

"You call my chambers a dungeon?" Lord British stood in the doorway of the parlor. A white sorcerer's gown draped to his ankles. A large box rested under one arm. "I thought you would appreciate living in a king's quarters for awhile."

Blackthorn stared back at his friend. His eyes glistened like obsidian.

British frowned. "It's all I can give you. You know that."

"You can give more."

"Did I overlook something?" His eyebrows lifted. "Ah. Mana. I truly wish I could allow you sorcery, Blackthorn. But I don't dare."

"Bound like a filthy daemon. Is that what you think of me?"

"No. You're more dangerous than a host of daemons. Nothing less would hold you, my friend." He creased his brow. "Aren't you going to ask me how we cast a binding circle around a human? This is the first time it's ever been done, that I know of. Nor was it easy to cast around the entire tower."

Blackthorn shook his head. "I know how. It's in the Codex."

"You saw the spell when you looked through the lens?"

The nobleman's gaze did not flinch. "Chess, then, is it?"

British glanced at the box under his arm. "I thought we might as well continue our matches. You know, make the best of it."

"Your gall is overwhelming."

British nodded. "I learned it from you. Let's play, Blackthorn. You can torment me with guilt during the game."

Blackthorn spread out his hands. "It's your dungeon. You pick the torture."

The box unfolded into a small chess table. British began to arrange the pieces. Without looking up he said, "You know, you served the Virtues well last night. Nystul has always had trouble with Humility."

Blackthorn offered a slight smirk. "How well does he wear it?"

"Like a cat thrown in a moat."

After a moment's silence, both men indulged in soft laughter.

The match was a quiet one. The two friends spoke little. When British opened the door to leave, they avoided eye contact.

Blackthorn exhaled a chestful of tension when the door thumped shut. He heard the clatter of the lock. After the sound of footsteps vanished, he lifted up a finger. At the end of it was a tiny, white spider. Blackthorn tilted down his chin as he talked, so his breath would not disturb the mote-sized creature.

"Be still, little soldier."

He closed his eyes. For a long while the only motion in the room was the tremble of the fire. Blackthorn's breaths grew deep. His flame-lit face was peaceful and calm.

Then a spasm jerked through his body. He bent over in his chair and gnashed his teeth with a rasping sound. His face knotted into wrinkles of pain. His fists clenched tightly, though the finger supporting the spider remained upright. Small whines and growls leapt from his throat.

His eyes opened. Their surfaces were pearly black. Tendrils of gray fume billowed from them like floating tears, enveloping the tiny spider, which squirmed and stamped in the hovering fog. At last Blackthorn squeezed his eyes shut again.

"Go carefully," he whispered in a strained voice. "The weight of many worlds rests on your eight legs."

He bent down and released the spider onto the floor, where it began to crawl towards the door.

In the flickering opulence of Lord British's chambers Blackthorn collapsed in his chair, his skin ashen, his eyes swollen and bloody, his close-cropped hair as pale as a dove's feathers.

"Grandfather, I didn't bring down Lord Blackthorn so you could lock him away!" Lady Gavrielle aimed a stern glare at Nystul. In the gloom of his library, the old wizard was poring over a haphazard stack of books. The young woman leaned closer, her golden braids sweeping the tabletop. "I insist that you let him go."

Nystul glanced at her for no more than a heartbeat. "Impossible. Lord British would never allow it."

"You could convince him. I know Blackthorn was brash in his methods, but he's no criminal! He has a very strong case against what you're doing and he deserves to be heard. Please, ask Lord British to free him."

"You presume too much on our kinship. I won't defend Blackthorn, not on your behalf or anyone else's."

"If not for me, Blackthorn would have already ended your plans. I think that entitles me to some consideration. I'll argue my own case to Lord British, if I have to!"

"I won't allow it. Lord British is very busy."

"You can't stop me, grandfather!"

"I can and I shall!" He slammed shut a dusty tome. "Do you think I'm being unreasonable? So be it! I won't allow this nonsense to continue another second." Nystul glowered at her from beneath bushy white eyebrows. "If you want to challenge me in this, girl, I warn you I'm not in a mood to play games. I'll treat you as an opponent, not as my granddaughter!"

The young sorceress backed away reflexively. "You're angry that he beat you."

"Yes, I am." He returned to his books. "Now, leave me! Find some other way to assuage your guilt."

Gavrielle's eyes lit with fury. She rushed out of the library, banging shut the door. The shock sent a few of Nystul's books toppling to the floor. With a snarl the wizard slapped his hand on the table, and the fallen books leapt back into place and neatly arranged themselves. He nodded curt approval and resumed his studies.

Under a storm-gray sky, a wasteland unfurled in all directions. This had once been a forest. Now the trees, devoid of all leaves, looked like a graveyard of giant, black antlers. The earth was cracked and dry. Bones and jagged rocks littered the bramble-thick road. A threatening wind stalked through the desolation.

British and Blackthorn stood in the road. Their swords were sheathed. Their shields and plate armor, though finely polished, seemed dull in the listless daylight.

Neither man wore the trappings of a lord, for neither yet held the title. They were still young. Blackthorn's noble father was not yet murdered. British knew little of his destiny. In their unlined faces sparkled the raw fortitude that would carve their names into history.

"Felucca," said Blackthorn, squinting into the dusty breeze. His hair rippled in long, black curls.

British frowned. "I know that name, but I can't remember how. This is Sosaria, not a moon."

"This is our future. The sorceress Minax will ravage the world."

"Then we'll stop her!"

"No, but you'll save the people of Sosaria." Blackthorn held up a glistening white stone. "You'll deliver them here." He tossed the stone into the brambles. After a moment's pause, a glowing shape rose from the earth. The moongate beckoned with a warm light that seemed alien to this barren realm.

They stepped through. The green splendor of Britannia greeted them. The forest whispered its familiar sounds and scents.

"Trammel," smiled British. "Your illusions seem familiar to me, Blackthorn. Why?"

"The future is not an illusion. Now look again."

The forest was gone. In its place was a stone-paved desert, awash in a smoky miasma. Strange granite buildings were strewn about the landscape, plated with metal and bristling with iron pipes and tall, fuming chimneys. A fierce smell burned in their noses.

British coughed and held a gauntlet over his mouth and nose. "What kind of hell is this?!"

"We're still in Sosaria. A different evil has ravaged it."

"Then we'll escape again!"

Blackthorn stretched out his hand, which was filled with the pearl-white stones. When he cast them down a dozen moongates emerged from the ground. Inside of each, they could see a duplicate of the foul landscape. "No escape," said Blackthorn.

"We'll fight the evil, if we must." British thumped a fist onto Blackthorn's shoulder. "Name an enemy who can stand against the two of us!"

"I'll fight. Will you?"

The blond youth laughed and motioned around at the bizarre scene. "Will I? What kind of question is that?"

Blackthorn stared back, with eyes dark as obsidian. A meandering wind buffeted the warriors with clouds of thick, bitter smoke.

The firelight draped Lord British like a comfortable blanket. While arranging pieces on the chessboard, he paused to rub his eyes.

"Not sleeping well?" asked a voice from the shadows beside the hearth.

British sighed. "It must be the strain."

Blackthorn spoke with a gruff tone. "Dreams can turn against you, can't they?"

The older man began to nod, then stopped and peered into the shadows. "Sometimes. Are you going to lurk over there like a mongbat or come and take out your frustrations on the board? I promise I'll let you win this time."

"As you so often do. I may grow tired of your generosity."

British twirled a queen as he set it in place. "You know, I can still arrange some company for you up here, if you want."

"I don't need company."

"Not even Lady Gavrielle?"

Blackthorn snorted. "The final insult."

"I can't say I blame you," said British, "though I can't blame her for what she did, either."

"She can't bear all the responsibility. She didn't understand the consequences of betraying me."

Blackthorn stood and walked out of the shadows. As he arranged his chair before the chessboard, Lord British gaped.

"By the Virtues! What happened to you?"

The nobleman's flesh was almost white. It seemed worn and limp, as if he had lost a great deal of weight. His dark eyes sank deeper than usual, heavy with veins and bags. His hair was the color of chimney ash.

"Imprisonment doesn't suit me, I guess. Don't look so shocked. Nystul's hair went white after he read the Codex."

"Not like this. What have you done to yourself?"

Blackthorn smiled. "Play the game, British."

Lord British pointed at his friend and shook his head. "So this is your ploy to change my mind? Withering away before my eyes? I don't know what poisons you've smuggled in here, but don't test my patience, Blackthorn. I have a lot more of it than you. I'll send up some healers when we're finished with the game. You won't convince me with this child's act."

"I don't need to," answered the nobleman. "Your conscience will act on my behalf."

"My conscience and I are on good terms. Now make your move." As they pondered over the chess pieces, British chuckled. "You know, I think this condition does suit you. You make a dashing corpse."

Blackthorn said nothing, but reached for a pawn.

The spider's web was a delicate lacework, woven by fingers almost too tiny to see. It occupied a small corner in the canopy of an enormous oaken bed. When Lord British crawled under the plush sheets, the wind stirred by his movement undulated the web and its silent, mote-sized creator.

As he had for over a week now, British reached to douse his lamp only to find the bedstand in a different position than he expected. He was not accustomed to these new chambers, since he had given his own to Blackthorn.

That, no doubt, explained his restless nights.

As the monarch drowsed, the tiny spider inched to the lip of its web. Though its breath was so miniscule that a man could never sense it, the whir of air drifted down from the canopy and settled on British's eyelids, which immediately became uneasy.

The cold twilight breeze animated Gavrielle's luxuriant curls. Her face was pensive, half-lit by the fading sunlight. Her arms were crossed on the rough surface of a high rampart. Her rippling white cloak gently tugged at her.

Around her was a dark valley, hidden between the jagged peaks of a mountain range. She stood atop a rough-hewn tower. Lapping at the base of the fortress, like some magical lake, was a host of glowing campfires. The wind whispered distant sounds of smiths and carpenters.

"They say the Guard is almost complete." A figure in black stepped beside her. Exedur's young face seemed to congeal from the gloom, as if the shadows were reluctant to uncover him. "Other troops will arrive tomorrow night. Not human." He watched her expression. "It looks like your work is finished, my lady."

Her large eyes squinted against the chill of the wind. She glanced at him for no more than a heartbeat. "The work is not mine. I am ... only a messenger."

"As you like," murmured the prophet, "but don't regret what you've done. Your motive is nobler than even mine."

"It's meaningless, anyway. You have an army, but no battlefield."

Exedur sighed. "No, I still haven't foreseen where the spell will be cast. There's only one person who can find that out for us."

Gavrielle entwined her fingers and blew warm air into her hands. "You're right. No need to wait. Get ready to leave."

The prophet touched the sword at his hip. "I'm ready, my lady."

The island's rocks punctured the waves as though the seashore was gnawing the ocean. The midnight sea thrashed angrily. A young British stood astride two crags of stone, facing the land. The spray swirled around him like a white cloak. His sword was drawn. His shield displayed his serpent standard.

Before him were two warriors. Each held a long-bladed polearm and wore armor of gray and crimson metal. Their sandaled feet moved with ease over the jagged rocks. In unison they gave a war cry and leapt into the air, impossibly high, twirling their polearms in dizzying circles. They fell upon him with lightning strokes.

British swept aside one attack with his shield; the other he dodged, then pinned the downswept blade against a rock with his sword. But both of his opponents were nimble, kicking high with expert precision, smacking him off of his perch. British landed on his back, half submerged in the shallow, salty water. The warriors sprang over sawtooth rocks and lunged with the points of their weapons.

The polearms deflected, amid blinding sparks, from a ward of protection British hastily erected. The startled warriors lost their balance. In that moment British recited a spell which transported him a dozen yards away. When he regained his feet, he saw they were closing again.

His sword and shield glittered silver. His young face pulled into a snarl.

With an outstretched sword he flung a bolt of lightning into one warrior's stomach. Immediately he ducked behind a corner of his shield, which stopped the other's blade hurtling toward his shoulder. Then he spun, pushing the blade aside. Using the momentum of the spin his swordstroke cleaved through the haft of the polearm. A second sweep should have taken off the man's head, but the warrior had ducked and tumbled between the craggy stones, kneeling in the surging foam.

British spat an incantation and a wave of fire slashed across the seashore. When it dissipated, the turbulent water was boiling.

The two warriors sprang onto separate outcroppings. Frantically they pulled off their helmets, which steamed from the sudden heat. British stared at their inhuman faces. Were they wingless gargoyles? No. Perversions of gargoyles, perhaps, transformed through some black alchemy. But whose alchemy?

"Stop," commanded a deep voice from the shore. British readied his shield as he looked. On the rough ground stood a dozen men, dressed in robes of black and gray. They were clearly human. Their faces were covered in strange tattoos. As he peered closer, British recognized many of the symbols. They were mathematical formulae.

"Which one of you commands these creatures?" he shouted, pointing his sword at the inhuman warriors. "What reason do you have for attacking me?"

No single voice answered. Rather, in unison, the robed men began to chant a low, gurgling note. They parted as a large figure materialized from the gloom behind them. British choked back an exclamation and struggled to make sense of the apparition. It was a gross mockery of a human shape; a kaleidoscopic horror of copper and iron and leather and flesh; a man consumed by a mechanism.

In Blackthorn's voice it answered him: "The cruelest of all reasons, British. Revenge."


The apparition flexed its mechanical claw. "I am your friend, yet you doom me to this fate. I demand atonement."

"I will not atone for this." British shrugged off his shield, which splashed into the water at his feet. Then he lifted his hands. "But I shall remedy it."

The spell leapt from his fingertips on a fountain of brilliant sparks. Its luminous energies swept around the grotesque Blackthorn, while his robed followers moved into action. From their drab gowns they withdrew devices shaped like long iron bottles. These bottles had no bottoms, but rather a wide opening at one end, which the men aimed toward British. Mechanisms clicked inside. In unison a dozen columns of flame roared at him. He flinched as the bright heat flashed around him; but when the flames ceased after several seconds, the young warrior stood unharmed amid coils of smoke and steam.

"Call them off!" he shouted, still wielding his spell with flamboyant gestures. "They cannot stop me!"

The two inhuman warriors scrambled toward him over the sea-swept rocks. They had abandoned their polearms, replacing them with far more peculiar weapons. Each wore a single, sleeve-like gauntlet. Below the wrist was a pair of huge, steel jaws, spiked with teeth. British managed to unsheathe his sword and deflect one set of mechanical mandibles, but the second set latched onto the armor of his side. The metal complained as the weapon nearly bit through his mail. He twisted out of the grip of the jaws, endeavoring to maintain his spell on Blackthorn. But a loud creak shot across the waters; his sword was captured between mandibles and bitten in half. He grunted as a kick knocked him into the knee-deep, tossing seawater.

He realized he could not defend himself and continue to enchant Blackthorn. He selected the more important task.

One of the warriors shoved British's face under the salty water with a foot on his neck. The cold ocean invaded his mouth and throat, yet he did not lose focus on the magical forces he had unleashed. Through them he could sense Blackthorn, though his eyes saw only churning sand and glints from the water's surface.

The foot vanished from his throat. In its place a set of powerful steel jaws kept him pinned to the pebbled sand under the seawater. As the last of his breath boiled from his lips, British felt his magic changing Blackthorn; then a loud snap resounded in his ears.

"I know you're in my dreams," announced Lord British as he unfolded the legs of the chessboard. "And I know that you're sapping mana out of your physical body to cast the spells. That's a grisly way to get around the binding circle, Blackthorn! I underestimated your resolve."

"People often do." The nobleman was wrapped in a thick bathrobe. His flesh, once pale, had now grown an unhealthy yellow. It hung on his bones like a limp flag on a pole. "Excellent. Now you can stop pestering me with healers, trying to figure out how to cure me."

"Sorry, the healers will keep coming. I can't let you kill yourself." British began to set up the royal chess pieces. "But you might as well stop what you're doing. Because you've won."

Blackthorn grunted as he shifted in his chair. "You're not going to repair the Gem of Immortality?"

"I'm still going to cast the Binding, yes. But you don't have to fear for your own future. Nystul and I have concocted a way to protect you."


"We've enhanced the binding circle around the tower. No matter what else happens, you'll be safe here. You won't transform into that monstrosity you showed me in the dream."

"You sound quite certain."

"I am certain." He set the white king in place. "You must learn to trust my work, Blackthorn. Nothing went wrong when I opened the gate to Trammel, did it? And that was without the benefit of the Codex."

"That damned book! I pray there are shards where Nystul didn't discover it. Maybe they'll be spared your cataclysm." Blackthorn slammed the arms of the chair. "Dammit, British, don't you see? It isn't about you and me. It never has been. It's about the perversion of our world! It's about the people who will die when the shards rejoin!"

"Consider what you're saying. Yes, when the shards are rejoined, Sosaria will return to the point in time at which the Stranger shattered the Gem. Yes, the generations born since then will cease to exist. But their spirits, their destinies will remain. They will be born again, into a much better world. And now, think on this: Some of us -- me, Nystul, yourself under the protection of this binding circle -- we will remember everything. We'll know about the Codex. We'll know the threat that Minax poses. It's an opportunity to correct the evils we've endured for so many years!"

Blackthorn's frown was exaggerated by the deep wrinkles on his face. "I've been an idiot." He massaged his brow with bony fingers. "By the twin moons, it's so simple. We're all victims of your guilty conscience! You blame yourself for the shattering of the Gem of Immortality, and no man or god will stand in your way until you set things right."

British exhaled a deep breath. "If you must put it that way, then yes. That's the truth of the matter."

"The only way the Stranger could beat Mondain was to shatter the Gem. You know that. But your ego won't let the blame rest in Mondain's grave. You forsake your own Virtues! Where is Humility? Where is Honesty, when you lie to yourself? Where is Compassion, when millions must die to satisfy your vain conscience?"

"Quiet!" Lord British waved a hand as if swatting away his friend's words. The violence of the motion tipped the chess table. Black and ivory pieces clattered to the hardwood floor. "Don't you dare mock the burden I have to carry! It's a horrible thing I have to do. I feel that more deeply than you ever could. And I don't need your conjured dreams to remind me. But, Blackthorn, I'm doing it for the sake of Justice. Sosaria shouldn't suffer anymore because of my mistake. I have to make the world whole again."

"I will not stop fighting you, British."

"Please, my friend. Spare me these games."

Blackthorn glared with swollen eyes. "It's your game board. My friend."

"Then I'll take it away." British crouched and started collecting the pieces. "I'd hoped we could play one more time before I left the city. I guess I was being naive."

"You're ... leaving?"

"Just before dawn. Nystul has conjured the fortress of Stonegate. We're going to conduct the Binding there."

"Stonegate? That's only a myth. Where did he find it?"

British shook his head. "Not your concern."

"Now you overestimate me. If I could stop you while I'm trapped in these chambers, I wouldn't have bothered with those dreams."

"I know you're powerless," said British, closing the hasps on the chess box, "but there's rumors of an unknown army mustering near Yew. Not that you would have any knowledge of that, of course."

Blackthorn gazed across the room as British moved towards the door. The air seemed thick with hazy firelight. "You're the bravest man I've ever known," said the nobleman in a soft, pale voice.

British paused with one hand on the door handle. "You stay here, Blackthorn. You'll be safe here. The Codex has assured me."

"I have always been proud to call you my friend."

"Stay here!" The monarch began to speak further, but stifled his words. Instead, with one last look at his friend he murmured, "I'll see you when this is all finished."

When the door clattered shut, Blackthorn squeezed his eyes closed. A tear, tinged with blood, snaked down the corner of his nose. He lifted an emaciated finger, which trembled with weakness. The tiny spider perched on its end.

"I'm a fool," he rasped to his accomplice. "British was right. He's more patient than I am. I can't break him that way. But there are other ways." His eyes opened. They were smooth and featureless, huge black pearls. "Little soldier, this is the darkest moment in my life." He swallowed. "Pray that I don't survive."

The spell was excruciating. Blackthorn's withered body squirmed on the oaken floor. His flesh erupted in pain as if he boiled from within.

What felt like bone-jarring screams were little more than whimpers.

When it was over, the spider crawled from Blackthorn's unmoving hand. By its own standards the journey ahead was very long, but the tiny creature marched on, under the door, through a crack between floorboards, along the endless rafters of Castle Britannia, until it reached a particular room.

From the ceiling it gazed down at Lord British. The tall man sat at a desk, reading scrolls by lamplight. On occasion he raked his fingers through his golden hair, grumbling curses under his breath. Around him were stacks of small chests. Servants moved in and out of the room, collecting the boxes for the monarch's trip.

The spider kept still. As the night crept onward, the creature's body darkened. When the window revealed the first blue paleness of dawn, the spider was as black as jet.

It moved, spinning a single strand of webbing, on which it descended towards Lord British. It touched onto the surface of the monarch's desk. Where its tiny legs rested, the wood became black and dry.

The spider crawled toward British, brandishing a pair of needle-tip fangs.

Something intervened. It wasn't nearly the size of a human, yet it was large enough to scoop up the spider in its ink-stained paw. The spider's legs splayed as rodent teeth bit into its black body.

Nystul stalked into the room. "The sun has started rising."

"I know. I'm sorry." An unkempt Lord British rolled up the document in front of him. "This is the last one. Get these to the messengers and tell them to hurry. Is there any word from Shamino?" He glanced at the silent wizard. "Nystul?"

The old man was staring at the surface of the desk. On one side, in a vanishing shadow, was a black, discolored spot. It was shaped like a mouse, as if a rodent had crumbled to dust there.

"We'd better hurry, my lord," said the wizard, with a stern glance around the room.

"My lord? Can you hear me?"

Opening his eyes was a painful experience. Blackthorn could hear his desiccated skin crackling.

"My lord, we must hurry."

A young face filled Blackthorn's clouded vision. The nobleman smiled and tasted blood for the effort.

"Exedur." His voice was weak and scarred. "Come ... to free me ... or kill me?"

"Here." The assassin held up a long, thin vial containing an amber liquid.

"No. Potion ... won't work." He tried to feel the shape of his body, but found only sharp pains from distant places. "Am I ... bad?"

"You're a horror," mumbled Exedur in his gentle voice. "Don't move. I'll get you out of here."

Blackthorn felt himself hoisted with ease. He thought he glimpsed a body on the ground nearby, that resembled the old healer who had tried in vain to cure him. But Exedur did not linger in that spot and Blackthorn did not have the energy to turn his head. It took a mustering of will for him to whisper, "British ... alive?"

"Yes, he's alive. We had to wait for him and Nystul to leave before we could come in after you."

Blackthorn tried very hard to regret his final failure, but did not have the strength for it.

A glorious surge of power tingled through his body. Blackthorn sensed his limbs again, though they were desperate with pain. "We've ... left the tower?"

"Yes, my lord. Lady Gavrielle broke the circle before I entered. I've got to set you down now."


"Because a knight is about to attack us."

The nobleman heard the soft ring of a blade as it left its sheath. He opened his eyes and recognized one of the hallways of Castle Britannia. Exedur, dressed in black and now masked with a hood, slunk towards a nearby corner.

Blackthorn reached out a hand to attempt sitting up. He saw that his arm was bone-thin. His skin looked like burned wood.

A metallic clank echoed down the hallway. Blackthorn turned to see an armored knight collapsing to his knees, clutching his throat. A cascade of blood poured onto the marble floor. Though the man was clearly finished, Exedur did not back away, but struck again. Blackthorn quickly saw why. Unseen, the knight had drawn his sword and only Exedur's rapid reaction kept the bladepoint from plunging into the assassin's belly. Even so, the knight found his legs and twirled his sword overhead, growling.

Blackthorn recognized Sir Dupre's voice. "Exedur ... back away!" He struggled to force volume behind his words. "He's too good!"

But the assassin could not break loose. Exedur's parries were exact, but his gift of prescience did not grant him the speed and skill to fend off Britannia's fiercest warrior. In seconds he staggered backwards, Dupre's sword piercing his side.

The knight shoved his opponent to the ground, then swayed on weakening knees. Blood still dribbled from the wound on his neck. Blackthorn took advantage of the moment to chant a spell. A flash of white light bombarded the hallway. When its afterimage faded, Sir Dupre lay on his back, motionless.

Exedur grunted as he stood. Grimacing he drank the amber potion, which appeared to lessen his pain. "This way." He lifted Blackthorn and carried him at a trot down the hallway. "Lady Gavrielle left a rune to transport us to the site of the muster."

"Don't speak ... of it here."

"No one hears." They ducked behind a curtain, where a small pouch awaited them in a guard's niche. Exedur laid Blackthorn against the wall and pulled a carved stone out of the pouch. He handed it to the sorcerer. "Obviously you're well enough to use this."

Blackthorn gazed at the grotesque site of his own hand. "You ... flatter me."

"You just cast a spell without any reagents. I don't know much about sorcery, but I think you're feeling better than you look."

The nobleman flexed his fingers. Though the motion shot talons of pain through his limbs, the flow of mana was revitalizing. He was glad of the familiar sensation. At the same time he heard Lord British's words echo in his mind -- in the tower, Blackthorn was safe from that horrific vision of the future. Outside the tower, who could say what destiny might bring?

He was not even certain his body would recover from the magical abuse.

"I've never felt ... worse ... in my life, Exedur." He wrapped his unearthly hand about the rune. "But ... no matter. There's work ... to be done now."

Without another sound the pair vanished from the halls of Castle Britannia, where cries of alarm were beginning to wind through the long, opulent halls.