Brann did not need the Lightfriends’ Perception to sense the tension in the air as he spoke; he was a Swordsman and could recognise the feelings of his companions. A mixture of anticipation, eagerness, nervous energy and impatience emanated from them as they prepared to face the battle at last. He said ” The closer we can get to the Dark Lord without being challenged, the better. We will fight when needed, but if we can avoid it and not draw attention to ourselves, we will. Time enough for battle when we reach the Dark Lord’s guardians. Above all, the Lightstone-Bearer must be protected at all times. Without him we have no way to defeat the Dark Lord and his sorceries.” Tamorine, standing beside him, agreed “We will move as quietly as we may. Be alert and prepared to fight, but, as Brann says, we will avoid attention while we can.” They prepared to move out, Rull going with Brann and Tamorine at the head of their troops, as he knew at least some of the roads of the Dark City. As the smithy was on the corner of one of the cross streets, they decided to follow that up through the circles of the City, rather than go round the circle to another street. They knew that the main quarters of the mercenaries were on the next circle, and were not sure if the escape of the slaves had been discovered yet, so proceeded very cautiously. As they came to the corner of the second circle, Brann signalled a halt, as he saw a movement ahead. It proved to be a lone mercenary, but before he could decide what to do, he heard a slight exclamation beside him, and Rull pushed past him and faced the man. The mercenary seemed to recognise him, and said brusquely ” The smith? How were you freed, slave? What are you doing here?” Rull replied, in a quiet voice that still resonated with rage, “Returning your sword!” Before the mercenary could react, Rull had drawn the sword and run the man through. The mercenary gave a strangled gasp, choked, staggered, and fell. Brann, seeing the mercenary was dead, stepped from hiding, and said angrily “That was foolish, Rull! You could have given us away.” The smith looked at him defiantly, and said, “I knew the shock of seeing me would silence him. The man was a brute and a bully. I paid him for many beatings – and not just those I suffered!”
Brann wasted no time in recriminations, but made sure the body was moved to a dark spot where it would not be easily seen, before they moved on. It seemed the mercenary had been late returning to barracks, for they encountered no others, and moved up the street to the next circle, where they listened out for patrols, but heard none. Rull warned “We are nearing the fourth circle next. That is where the Dark Lord’s followers and favourites live. It is there that more guards will be.” They approached the junction cautiously, and as they neared they heard a murmur of voices and caught a glimpse of lantern light. A band of mercenaries appeared at the junction of the circle and the cross street, and froze momentarily, seeing the shadowy figures of the vanguard of Brann and Tamorine’s force. Then they drew their swords and advanced. Brann, Tamorine, and the others had also armed themselves, while Ket-Jal and his Ketai grouped around Rafel, protecting him with their spears. As the mercenaries grasped the number of their attackers, Brann saw one near the back of the group pull out a horn and raise it to his lips. A Ketai arrow took him in the chest, but nor before he had time to blow a warning blast. “That will bring them down on us!” Tarn gasped, as they closed with the other mercenaries. Brann smiled grimly, thinking that if not the horn, then the sound of clashing metal as blade parried blade would surely do that. He had to grudgingly admit to himself that the mercenaries were good fighters, and if they had grown complacent within their City stronghold, it had not made them careless. Rafel called, then, “The Lightfriends report that more mercenaries are coming from the barracks. Our Swordsmen and Ketai at the rear are preparing to face them.” The small group of mercenaries they had first encountered were down now, dead or too badly wounded to hinder them further, and Tamorine called across to him “Brann, we must let the others deal with the men from the barracks, and carry on towards the Dark Lord’s dwelling with Rafel.” He knew she was right, and agreed, though he was concerned about leaving some of their force to fight through the streets to join them .
“There will be more guards ahead” Rull warned, but Brann had realised that must be so, as they neared the Dark Lord. The sounding of the mercenary’s horn would have alerted those ahead, he knew, and there would be no easy passage before them. As he thought this, Rafel said “I Perceive more danger ahead, Brann, Tamorine”. All of them were prepared, and the mercenaries’ ambush came as no surprise. If the Dark Lord’s men had thought to take them unawares, they were disappointed, as their attack was met with fierce opposition and many of them fell before the determined onslaught of Brann and Tamorine’s forces. But there were casualties on both sides, and though none of their own side were killed, a few were wounded. These the Healers tended as best they could in the midst of the fighting. Brann saw that the mercenaries were pulling back, but only, he felt sure, to gather reinforcements and renew their attack. It gave them a brief respite to push forward, but in the midst of it he was startled to hear a sudden sharp cry from Rafel. He turned, anxious that the Lightstone-Bearer might have been wounded, and asked “What is it Rafel? Are you hurt?” Rafel drew a deep breath and answered “Not I – but one of the Lightfriends near the rear of our force has been killed, and I felt it. It is a hard thing to Perceive the death of a Brother-in-Light.” Ket-Jal gave a little groan, and exclaimed “Then the Ketai have failed you! Forgive us, Lightstone-Bearer.” “No” Rafel said gently, “the Ketai have not failed the Lightfriends. Your men fought to save him, but were killed or wounded. No shame to them, Ket-Jal. And our brother has touched Light.”
A brief silence followed, as they moved on to the next circle of the City, where again they were met with an onslaught from the mercenaries. “We must get through” Rull gasped, “for the next circle is where we will find the Dark Lord.” “We will!” Brann said, with grim determination. He glanced across at Tamorine as he said it and she gave a slight nod in recognition of his comment. Rafel said ” As we near the Dark Lord, it is likely we will meet with some of his sorceries. If so, your weapons will not defeat them, and I will need to use the Lightstone. Be prepared.” They fought fiercely, but their opponents were as determined to keep them from the Dark Lord’s lair, and it was a prolonged and bloody battle. Some of Brann and Tamorine’s men fell, but they had no time to spare to see if they were dead or only wounded, as they pressed on with the attack. Brann had never fought for so long at a stretch and felt his sword arm beginning to ache with the effort. The rest of their force had now dealt with the mercenaries behind them and closed up to join the fight. Tarn had forced his way through the melee to fight at Brann’s side, with Kerrin and Gamlin there too. Again Brann glanced across at Tamorine and saw her fighting with single-minded intent. They all knew they were closing on their goal and were determined that nothing would stop them reaching the Dark Lord and facing him. He noted that one of the Masked Ones had closed with a mercenary and seemed determined to make an end of the man, focused on his adversary alone. Brann wondered momentarily if the Masked One had recognised the mercenary as one who had done him or his kinfolk personal harm, but he had no time to spare for such thoughts as another of the enemy came at him and he had to defend himself. He felt a sharp sting across his cheek as the other man’s sword caught it a glancing blow, but he was faster and the mercenary fell. Brann felt a trickle of blood and wiped it away with the back of his hand. The mercenaries, with many of their number killed or wounded, were falling back before the onslaught as Brann and Tamorine’s forces approached the last circle of the Dark City , where the building lay that housed the Dark Lord. They were not retreating, though ,but regrouping to defend the place.
The building they were approaching had a wide flight of steps leading up to the main door and the mercenaries were ranging themselves on the steps to defend the doors. Brann thought that they would be at a disadvantage if their enemies were above them on the steps and barked out orders to his men prevent this. They fell on the mercenaries and some of Brann and Tamorine’s force managed to get past and behind them, preventing them going further up the steps. The Dark Lord’s defenders were now surrounded and fighting fiercely, but their opponents were determined to reach the doors and gain entry. Tarn and Gamlin managed to clear a way through for their leaders and the Lightfriend, who reached the doors but found them sealed. They could see no handle or keyhole, and Rafel said quietly “The doors are held shut by sorcery, as I suspected.” He drew out the Lightstone, and gazed into it. The stone began to glow, brighter and brighter, and the Lightstone-Bearer lifted it on its long chain and touched it to the centre of the doors, where they joined. The light from the stone ran like a rivulet along the join of the doors and slowly, reluctantly it seemed, they began to open inwards. Brann peered through the crack as it opened. Were there more defenders inside, or was the Dark Lord relying solely on his sorceries? They soon saw, for as the doors opened they saw figures struggling to force them shut again, but the power of the Lightstone was inexorable, and the mercenaries inside gave up the attempt and drew their swords. They were not numerous, and Brann and the others soon overpowered them, and leaving part of their force to finish dealing with those outside the doors, went on into the building. Tamorine, looking across at Brann, and seeing him properly, since this was the first time they had had to draw breath since the attack began, exclaimed “Brann-you are wounded?” Tarn glanced at his friend with an anxious expression, but Brann said, lightly, “Only a cut, Tamorine.” and his friends relaxed.
They were following a wide corridor, lamp-lit and paved with stone, that led towards another door. Brann wondered if that door was also sealed, but as they neared it they saw it was partially open. Rafel, however, paused, and said “We must be careful. I Perceive Darkness ahead.” “The Dark Lord?” Ket-Jal asked, taking a firmer grasp of his spear. “No, but his sorceries”, Rafel answered. As he spoke, there was a sudden roar, and the corridor between them and the doorway filled with flames. Instinctively they flinched back, and Tamorine gasped ” He has set the building on fire!” “Then why do we not feel the heat?” Brann asked, recovering from his momentary fear. “Flames so high should scorch us where we stand, yet I do not feel them.” “You are right, Brann” Rafel said. “The flames are only an illusion. The Dark Lord has set a delusion to make us turn back. They are only there as long as we believe in them.” “Then we shall show him we do not believe in them!” Brann answered, and before anyone could respond he strode determinedly forward into the apparent conflagration. His friends watched with concern, but as soon as he stepped into the fire and it was obvious that no harm came to him, they saw that the flames flickered and disappeared, and the way was clear once more. “Well done, Brann!” the Lightstone-Bearer commented, as they followed him past the place and on into the building. He looked round at them all, and added ” His other sorceries will not be so easy to overcome. It may be that that was just a test, to see how determined we are. And there may be other mercenaries to guard him too. Do not let your guard fall.” “We shall not” Tamorine assured him. They moved on, alert for danger, but all was surprisingly quiet and still. Brann did not like this apparent lull in the battle. He was sure the Dark Lord was aware of their progress and planning further traps.
Now the corridor they were following began to turn, and as they rounded the bend more guards came at them and the fight began again. There were not many guards, but they seemed intent on keeping the attacking force from the next set of doors. Brann saw their leader, a burly man, step back and quickly slot a bar into place across the door, then take his stand in front of it. His companions fell, dead or wounded, but the man did not move. His sword was in his hand, and as Brann’s forces moved towards him, he laughed. “You will do me no harm!” he challenged “I keep the doors and you cannot pass.” Brann saw that he was right; somehow every sword blow and arrow, even the spears of the Ketai, seemed to glance off the man as though he were surrounded by an invisible shield. Rafel said “It is another sorcery.” The man laughed again. “My Lord protects me as I protect him. No weapon of Li’is can harm me.” No weapon of Li’is, indeed, seemed capable of touching the man, but, Brann thought, he himself bore the True Sword, and that was no weapon of Li’is, but had come out of Ma’al with the Lightfriends. He raised his arm and called to their forces to cease attacking the man, who said gloatingly, “So, you see sense and surrender? Good.” “I do not surrender” Brann said calmly, and strode forward with the True Sword ready. “Do you wish to die?” the other man asked, sneeringly. “I tell you, you cannot defeat me.” His face changed as Brann lunged with the True Sword, trying to disarm him, and caught the knuckles of his sword hand. He stared in disbelief as a few beads of blood swelled along the cut. “What…” he began, then stopped and parried Brann’s next blow. The others watched in apprehension, unable to help Brann, as the sword fight progressed. The mercenary leader was quick and skilful, but Brann was the better Swordsman, and at last his opponent went down, and the way to the doors was clear. Brann wiped his brow, and gasped to Rafel “Now I see the purpose of the True Sword!” “As Light must have known it” the Lightstone-Bearer answered. They lifted the bar that was holding the doors shut, and opened them cautiously.
Beyond these doors the corridor suddenly split into three branches. Brann said “Now we have need of your Perception, Rafel. Which path should we follow? For I feel that two of these ways will lead to dead ends and traps, and even the correct route will be suspect.” Rafel nodded, and bent his gaze to the Lightstone, blue eyes glowing. After a while he lifted his head, and said “The left-hand path leads to the Dark Lord, but there are more snares ahead. We must be careful.” They moved on into the corridor he had indicated, ready for another attack from mercenaries or more illusory dangers set by the Dark Lord, but though the way twisted and they were ready for danger at every corner, they met no resistance. Brann did not like this easy progress, fearing it was meant to put them off their guard when they encountered more peril. After a while, though, Brann’s keen hearing caught a strange sound. “Rafel, do you hear it?” he asked quietly, and the Lightstone-Bearer answered as softly “I hear it, Brann. I do not know what it means, but it does not bode well.” Ahead of them were more doors, and from behind those doors, which were, ominously, not barred but partly open, came the sound Brann, and now all of them, heard. It was an eerie music, which had a beauty to it, but also a strangeness which set the hairs on Brann’s neck on end. But they could not stop now, and he stepped forward and cautiously pushed open the doors. Beyond was a large hall, hung all in black cloth embroidered with strange symbols in silver thread. In the middle of the otherwise empty room stood a huge block of black stone and beside it stood a woman. She was tall and slender and very pale, her pallor made more pronounced by a mane of dark hair. Her eyes were like none they had ever seen, of a strange glowing shade of violet. Her clothing, like the room, was all of black trimmed with silver. She was the source of the strange music, for she was playing a kind of flute or pipe, golden in colour, which hung round her neck on a red cord. She looked up as they entered, but did not cease playing. They crowded into the black-hung hall, unsure of what this might mean, but feeling that one unarmed woman could not stop them. Brann thought that whatever sorcery the woman might weave could be overcome by the Lightstone. Still, he had a feeling of foreboding as he looked at the strange woman, who seemed unmoved by their presence, though she must have seen them. He made to move forwards towards her, but found he could not. He felt as though he was stuck to the spot. He glanced at Rafel, willing the Lightstone-Bearer to move, to use the Lightstone to free them from this enchantment, but the Lightfriend seemed as immobile as the rest of them. Only Tamorine shifted slightly where she stood, but as yet did not attempt to move.
Now the woman lowered her pipe and came towards them, and her previously expressionless face turned to an evil smile. “You behold the Priestess of Night, men of Li’is” she told them. “Look well, for I am your death. No man can resist my powers, and I shall summon my Lord to destroy you all.” She stood in front of them, gloating at their helplessness, playing with the golden pipe. She saw Rafel, surrounded by the Ketai, all of them motionless under her enchantment, and said, triumphantly, “So- somehow you have followed us from Ma’al, enemies of Night. But your accursed Light cannot aid you now, for I tell you again, no Swordsman or Priest can resist my powers. We shall be rid of you all!” The witch’s attention had been on Rafel, and she had not seen Tamorine, on the edge of the frozen group, stealthily drawing her sword. Brann gazed at Tamorine in astonishment. Why was she not affected by the enchantment? Then, even as she lunged at the other woman, he understood. The Priestess shrieked in terror and rage as Tamorine’s blade pierced her body, and Tamorine laughed, “No Swordsman can resist you – but I am a Swordswoman!” As the Priestess fell dying at her feet, Tamorine tore the pipe from her neck, snapping the cord, dropped it on the floor, and crushed it under her foot. Immediately the others found themselves free and able to move. Brann came close to Tamorine and said quietly, because he knew she would not want him to praise her openly before the others, “Well done, brave heart! I chose my Sword-Brother well!” and she smiled briefly at him. Rafel, looking somewhat shaken, said “Praise Light for Tamorine! For even I could not withstand the Dark Priestess, though I am the Lightstone-Bearer.” Tamorine said “Rafel, you told us that Light knows all things, so surely Light knew that I, a woman, could overcome her, though no man could. The Dark Lord is not so clever after all, since he did not reckon that a woman would come to fight against him.” “It is true that the Way of Light is often beyond our understanding” Ket-Jal commented. Brann, thinking of those they had left behind to fight in the streets of the City, asked “Rafel, can your Brothers-in-Light tell us how the battle goes outside this building?” Rafel lifted his head, eyes glowing, and they knew he was making the Thought-without-Words. After a pause, he said “They have made progress towards here, but the mercenaries have called out the Children of Night who live on the fourth circle, and they have armed themselves to join the battle. Our force is still hard-pressed.” He looked round at them, with determination in his face, and said “We must go on, find the Dark Lord, and bring this to an end!”
Tarn, looking round the black-hung hall, asked “But where is the way out of here towards him? Everywhere looks the same, and I see no door.” “There must be one, behind the hangings” Gamlin answered him. “We shall have to search.” He took a step towards the black stone slab, then stopped. Around the slab there seemed to be a darkness forming. Brann ordered “Wait, Gamlin! It must be another sorcery!” More illusory fire? he wondered, for the darkness at first looked like smoke. But then it began to form into shapes; tall flame-shapes, but not the glowing Dancers they had seen before. “What are they?” Tamorine whispered, as the dark flame-shapes materialised. They were sooty black, shot with angry-looking red sparks, threatening, a palpable sense of evil about them. Rafel said “They are the Night Lords, Tamorine – the corrupted Dancers of Ma’al.” Brann gasped, remembering what Rafel had said of these beings before. “How can we defeat them?” he asked. “The Lightstone?” Rafel did not answer, but raised his arms, eyes glowing again. For a few brief moments everything was still. Then, as the threatening dark shapes began to eddy towards them, there was a sudden shimmer in the air, and a phalanx of Dancers appeared between them and the Night Lords. All of them felt the thought of the Dancers echo in their minds “Do not fear the Night Lords, Children of Light. They will feed on your fear. Set your thoughts on Light only.” There was a moment’s silence, then Rafel began to pray aloud, though softly. Ket-Jal murmured “He speaks the Quieting Prayers. Follow him”, and so they spoke the words of the prayers after Rafel, though they had not yet learned them. As they prayed the Dancers began to press forward against the Night Lords in a silent attack. All of them could sense the tension between the light-beings and their Dark counterparts. The Quieting Prayers finished, Rafel encouraged them to praise Light and support the Dancers, and they complied as best they could. They could see the noiseless but purposeful advance of the Dancers, and watched in growing hope as the dark flames that were the Night Lords slowly and unwillingly retreated before them, until at last they were surrounded. Pressed on all sides by a growing number of the light-beings, the Night Lords could no longer resist, and eventually they began to blink out of existence, singly at first, then in a sudden rush. The thought of the Dancers echoed again in their minds. “We have driven the Dark Ones back to Ma’al. They will not return. You must go on with your Way, Lightstone-Bearer and warriors of Ma’al and Li’is.” “Will you come with us?” Brann asked aloud. “No” was the reply. “The Lightstone-Bearer summoned us to deal with the Night Lords, and that we have done. The rest of the battle is yours, not ours.”