The Dancers began to disappear, and Gamlin asked again “How shall we find the way to the Dark Lord?” Rafel answered “I Perceive him, Gamlin. Such great Darkness… but I know how to find him.” He led them unerringly across the black-hung hall, past the huge slab of black stone. Brann glanced at the stone in passing and saw a hollow in the top, with a crust of ominous dark smears. He thought it must be some kind of altar, and wondered, with an inner shudder, what kind of sacrifices that evil Priestess had made there. The Lightstone-Bearer, though, ignored the monolith and headed for the wall behind it. The wall-hanging here seemed thicker than the others, woven rather than embroidered. Rafel pulled it aside and revealed a single door. It was shut, but a large, ornate key was in the lock. Evidently the Priestess had been trusted with access here. Brann whispered to Rafel “Is he behind this door?” Rafel answered, quietly ” Not this door. He is further in. I Perceive no guards beyond the door, though.” He turned and said to the others, still softly, but clearly, “We are very near now. Remember that your weapons cannot protect you against the Dark Lord, for he wields the Dark Stone. Only the Lightstone can prevail against that.”
Rafel turned back and unlocked the door. The key turned easily, and the door opened smoothly, with no sound to give them away. As they looked through the opening, though, they were horrified to see that just beyond the door, where it led into a kind of antechamber, two poles were set in the stone floor , and on top of each was a grinning human skull. Tamorine gave a little gasp, and Brann murmured “A last warning, before we approach the Dark Lord!” They moved slowly past the poles, careful not to jostle them in case the skulls should be poised to fall and warn of anyone passing them. Their force was small in number now, as they had left men behind at various places to fight the mercenaries and keep back any interference with their mission. They passed the narrow entrance and found that it opened out into a square room, without furniture or adornment, except for one large wooden, metal-bound chest. They did not stop to investigate its contents, but crossed the room to a pair of doors. Rafel whispered “Here! These lead to his lair!” Brann felt his heart leap in his chest, with a mixture of fear and exultation. Here at last was the goal they had sought. Now, if Rafel could overcome the Dark Lord as he had promised, the freedom of Li’is would begin. The Lightstone-Bearer drew out the Lightstone and gazed into it, and they watched silently as the light flowed out of the Stone and bathed Rafel in its radiance, then withdrew again. Rafel lifted his head and said softly “Light has strengthened me. I am ready now.” Cautiously they pushed against the doors, expecting them to be locked, but they opened quietly inwards, and they found themselves looking into a room that was as sumptuously furnished as the anteroom had been bare. Fine hangings covered the walls, the floor was a mosaic of polished stone, strange statues stood in niches round the walls, and the seating was opulent and well padded. Across the room in a high-backed chair, with a flask of wine and goblet within reach on a carved table at his side, sat the man they must overcome. The Dark Lord! Brann stared, taking in the man’s appearance. Like the Priestess Tamorine had slain, he was very pale, his skin almost white. Despite what Rafel had told them about his great age, his hair was black, with no grey in it, though it seemed dull and sooty. His eyes, though, were bright, glowing a malignant green. His clothing , like the Priestess’, was all black, and on the hand that dangled nonchalantly over one arm of the chair was a heavy gold ring, with a large dark red stone that seemed to burn with its own fire.
As they entered the room the Dark Lord glanced up , no doubt expecting to see the Priestess. When he saw them advance, though, he came swiftly to his feet, but with no sign of alarm. Rather, his expression was of haughty displeasure. “Who dares enter here?” he demanded. His eyes swept across them, and he gave a hiss. “So” he said sneeringly, pointing at Rafel, “the renegades of Ma’al have somehow crossed into Li’is? And you have dragged the savages of Ma’al with you” he went on , looking at Ket-Jal and his Ketai, who stood alongside the Lightstone-Bearer. “Well, that is to the good. The Lords of Ma’al will not have to weary themselves finding and disposing of you. And you have persuaded some Swordsmen of Li’is to help you. I suppose you have cajoled them with your mind tricks. ” Rafel said, in a firm voice. “The Dark Lords are usurpers. Light gives them time to repent in Ma’al, but will not suffer Li’is to fall to them too.” The Dark Lord seemed to Brann to flinch a little as Rafel named the Power of Light, but he did not seem to grow less confident. “I suppose you have managed between you to pass my guards and enchantments. But my Priestess has failed me. She shall be punished.” Brann spoke then. “The Priestess is dead.” If he had hoped that his statement would cause the Dark Lord any concern, he was mistaken. The man shrugged a little, and said calmly “She can be replaced. Did you think I would mourn her, Swordsman?” He looked round at them again, and said “What do you think you can accomplish here? ” Rafel took a step forward, and said “Your downfall, Lord of Darkness.” The man laughed harshly at that. “You think so? I have been in Li’is more years than you and your fathers have lived, and many have tried to kill me, but I am still here. You are not the first to try, and like them, you will be defeated.”
Brann thought that the Dark Lord seemed actually to be enjoying the confrontation, in some odd way. No doubt in his arrogance, thinking he was unassailable, he was toying with them. Now he looked again at Rafel, and said, “I know your mind powers, renegade. But even if you have managed to use them to bring you into Li’is, your journey ends here. You will die, and your companions will be enslaved. Whatever powers you possess are useless against me.” Rafel gazed steadily back at him and said, “I do not rely on my own powers, Dark One, but on the Power of Light!” Again Brann sensed, rather than saw, a flinch of unease from the Dark Lord at the Name. Still, the man laughed his unpleasant laugh, and said “Do you think you will frighten me, renegade? I serve another master, one that shall be yours too, all of you.” As he spoke, he turned the ring on his hand, and Brann tensed, wondering if he was about to use it. Rafel said “You put your faith in the powers of Darkness that you carry with you. But I am the Lightstone-Bearer, Dark One, and I carry the Power of Light!” Rafel drew out the Lightstone and it lay on his breast, blazing with white fire. The Dark Lord, startled out of his apparent insouciance, stared at its brightness. Then he gave a shout of rage and raised the hand that bore the deadly stone, but before he could use it the Lightstone had extended a glowing shield of light in front of them all, protecting them. The stone of the Dark Lord’s ring flashed darts of red fire at them, but they could not penetrate the light-shield. Snarling, he raised both arms and began to intone strange words, but Rafel said “It is useless to summon your allies, Dark One. The Dancers of Li’is have driven the Night Lords back to Ma’al.” The Dark Lord lowered his arms and glared at Rafel, as if he considered what to do next. Rafel moved forward, still surrounded by the light-shield, and the Dark Lord was forced to retreat before him. Rafel spoke again. “Even for you, it is not too late. You can take the Choice of Light and abjure the Darkness. Because of your great age, when the Lord of Darkness leaves you, you will die, but you will touch Light.” The Dark Lord, though, only sneered and cursed at him. The Lightstone-Bearer said “Very well. I had to give you the Choice, but you have refused it. Now there is only one end for you.” He in turn raised his arms and began to speak, but none of them understood what he said. His tone was deep and the words rolled from his tongue like thunder, strange and awesome. Though he did not understand what Rafel said, Brann felt that they were full of holy rebuke against the Darkness.
The Dark Lord looked, now, as though he were in agony, his body bent and twisted. Somehow, though, he managed to straighten and aim the bolts from the Dark Stone at Rafel, but without effect. Rafel stopped speaking and lowered his arms, then declared in a loud voice “By the Power and the Will of Light, Dark One, I order you to return to the Darkness from which you came.” The Lightstone blazed, and something like a great bolt of lightning shot from it and struck the Dark Lord. The ring on his hand shattered, and a dark shadow rose from it – A Night Lord. It quickly disappeared, but another change was taking place. A dark shadow was spilling out around the body of the Dark Lord, as if it emanated from every pore of his flesh. It gathered to a large, amorphous cloud, and vanished. The Dark Lord still stood there, trembling, but as they watched, he gave a shriek and fell to the floor. The light-shield withdrew into the Lightstone, and Brann cried “Rafel!” , concerned that the Lightstone-Bearer was now unprotected. Rafel turned, smiled a weary smile, and said, “There is nothing to fear, Brann. It is over.” He turned back, and indicated the still form on the floor. “Look.” They crowded closer, some still maintaining a distance, but Brann, Tamorine and Ket-Jal came closer than the others and stared down at the Dark Lord – or rather, at what remained of him. The figure lying there was clearly dead, but what chilled them was the appearance of the body. It was no longer the tall, arrogant form they had seen, but a shrunken, bent figure, the face wizened and drawn in on the bones, eyes sunken, mouth slack, head completely hairless. Every visible part look drained of moisture, skin drawn taut over the bones as if mummified. Tamorine gasped “What has happened? Did the Lightstone do this?” “In a sense” Rafel said. “The Lightstone cast out the Night Lord that powered the Dark Stone and the Lord of Darkness that powered the man, sent them back to their places in Ma’al. What remained was the human body that housed them. And, as he told you, he was very, very old. He had lived several times his normal span, because the Lord of Darkness inhabited him. When that Dark spirit left him, the weight of the years came upon him, and he died.”
As they gazed down at the dead man, there was a small, sudden tremor that startled them, and when they looked again, the body had vanished. They gazed at each other, wondering what had just happened, but before they could question Rafel, a Dancer shimmered into being in the room. “You must go, Children of Light!” its thought echoed in all their minds. “The Dancers are closing the portal between this place and Ma’al that the Dark Ones made by their sorcery. Their works here will be destroyed, and the Dark City will fall. You must gather your forces and leave, but do not use the tunnels. Lightstone-Bearer, warn those in the City and the quarry to leave.” The light-being blinked out again, and Rafel, obeying its orders, bowed his head to look into the Lightstone and send the Thought-without-Words out to the Lightfriends scattered among the forces in the City and the quarry. “The Lightfriends will pass on the Dancers’ warning” he said, “and we must leave.” Brann, now realising the enormity of what had happened, as he scarcely had while experiencing it, said “Rafel – you have defeated the Dark Lord and freed Li’is from his rule!” “Not I, but Light” was the Lightstone-Bearer’s humble answer, but Ket-Jal said ” That is true, Rafel, but nonetheless, if you had not been a willing vessel, it would not have been accomplished.” They paused as another tremor shook the room, so strong this time that the flask standing on the carved table toppled over and spilled wine across the floor like blood. “We must hurry!” Tamorine cried, “Or our men will be trapped when the City falls.” They turned back towards the doors as the room continued to shake around them, the disquieting statues toppling from their niches and the wall-hangings billowing. As they hurried through the anteroom the poles swayed and the impaled skulls rocked. Brann was glad that they had passed through before the skulls crashed down behind them. They crossed the empty square room and came out into the black-hung hall. There was no sign of the dead Priestess, and as they crossed the room there was a loud cracking sound. Looking back they saw that the great black stone had split into three pieces. Swiftly they retraced their steps, weapons ready to repel any attack by the Dark Lord’s mercenaries, but saw no man, dead or alive, but their own. They gathered their forces who were inside the building and explained the need of haste. Reinforced now, their group hurried out of the building and down the steps. Of their men who had stayed to fight there, only a couple had stayed, to tell their leaders that the rest had received the relayed warning and were making for the gates of the City. They had begun to cross the street when a thunderous sound behind them made them turn to stare. The building that had housed the Dark Lord was falling, great blocks of stone tumbling down and splitting. Tamorine watched, transfixed, as a large pillar fell towards her, and Brann, seeing that she was in its path, cried “Tamorine!” and dashed forward to grasp her wrist and jerk her clear. “Thank you, Brann” she gasped. “Come” he told them all, and they moved on, meeting more of their men at the junction of the next circle. Among them were a Lightfriend with his Ketai guards, one of the Masked Ones, and Rull, the smith.
As they entered the next street Rull suddenly stumbled, and gave an exclamation. Brann turned. “Rull?” The smith stared downwards, and said “My shackles, Swordsman – they have disappeared!” Rafel said ” The Power of Light is moving here, Rull, and destroying the works of Darkness. You are free.” “Then I thank Light.” Rull said. Used as he was to compensating for the weight of the leg-irons, it took him a few steps before he could regain a normal stride. Behind them they could hear the crashing, tearing sounds of the Dark City’s collapse. It seemed that the destruction was spreading out from the central point of the Dark Lord’s erstwhile habitation, and they were still in danger. Great gusts of dust-laden wind roared past them, making them cough and gasp for breath, as they stayed barely ahead of the collapsing buildings. Brann had tried to urge Tamorine to go ahead to safety, but, true commander that she was, she had refused. “We are joint commanders, Brann” she said ” and I will not leave this place till all our men – those not killed in battle- are accounted for.” Rafel sent out the Thought-without-Words again and told them that the gates of the City were now open and unguarded, their defenders, defeated, either slain, imprisoned, or fleeing from the City’s destruction. Those they had left in the quarry had followed orders and got out of the dangerous area. Some of their force were already at the gates. As they hurried onwards they gathered more of their men, who had received the warning but refused to escape until they knew their commanders were safe. Brann reprimanded them, but Varil, the Sword-Trainer, who was one of them, said ” We could not leave without you, Brann, Lady Tamorine.” The Masked One who was with them spoke, his voice strange, a rough whisper, but it might have been affected by the dust emanating from the rubble of the falling buildings.” We must go quickly! The Dark City falls everywhere, and we are still in its midst. We must reach the gates.” They agreed and hurried after him, their haste made more urgent by a new roaring behind them. Brann glanced back and saw that the buildings along the street were falling close behind them, collapsing with a slow movement like a wave running along their length. It seemed that in a few seconds they would be overwhelmed. ” Tamorine, Rafel, all of you –run!” he shouted. The girl too looked back, gasped, and began to run. The dust of the collapse billowed around them, and he could not see her, or the others. Then Rafel and the others appeared, but he still could not see Tamorine. Brann felt a moment’s pure, blind panic, a horrific vision of Tamorine crushed beneath the falling buildings. Then he recovered himself and ran back towards her, shouting her name. She appeared, then, coughing and covered in dust, calling “I am here, Brann. Go on!” They raced on, gradually pulling away from the danger of the falling buildings, throats sore with breathing in the dust as they panted with the effort of their flight. At last they reached the gates, which, as Rafel had said, were wide open. They saw no sign of any of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries, but their own forces were waiting anxiously for them, and cries of relief and praise to Light went up when the two commanders appeared.
Outside the gates they were assured that the wounded had been taken back to the Lightfriends’ haven, the dead, as far as possible, carried away for honourable burial. Brann looked round at his companions and realised, for the first time, that Tarn had a bloody rag round one arm. “Tarn, you are hurt!” he exclaimed. “Why did you not say?” ” It was only a scratch” Tarn answered. “But might have been much worse if not for Kerrin”, he went on. “If he had not come to my aid – and been wounded himself in doing it, though not badly, praise Light – I might not be here with you now. I chose my Sword-Brother well.” “You did indeed.” Brann said. “Where is Kerrin?” “Gone back with the Healers, to have his wound dressed ” Gamlin told him, glancing at Tarn, “as this stubborn one would not, but must be at your side!” “I must thank Kerrin, when I see him” Brann said. He was deeply moved by Tarn’s narrow escape, but knew that to show it too much would embarrass his friend, so he smiled, and added “Life without Tarn would be very boring.” He heard Tamorine cough hard, and turned to ask “Is it well with you, Tamorine?” “It is just this dust” she said, looking at him. They were all covered with dust from the fall of the Dark City, and she laughed, ” Oh, Brann, you look as if you had fallen in the flour barrel!” “And so do you!” he told her, reaching out to brush some of the white dust from her. All of them were laughing now, not so much from merriment as release of fear and tension, and there was a harsh edge to their laughter. “We should move further away” Rafel said. “We are not safe on the edges of the Dark City, with the buildings still falling.” At his words, they looked back, and saw that he was right, as street on street and every circle of the Dark City continued to fall. They retreated from the devastated City, and as they did so they heard another odd sound, rumbling and swishing noises coming not from the City, but to the side of it. Looking in that direction, they saw a strange sight; the forest was sliding slowly downwards. They stared, confused, until Ket-Jal exclaimed ” The quarry! The Dancer warned us to leave it. The land and forest above it are falling into the quarry.” “And the walls of the City are starting to crack!” Gamlin cried. “We must get away from here. Who knows what will collapse next!” “Back to the Lightfriends’ caverns”, Brann ordered, looking to Tamorine for agreement. She nodded, and he continued ” Be on the lookout for mercenaries who may have escaped.” “There may be more for us to do yet” Tamorine said ” to deal with the remnant of the Dark Lord’s forces, and free the places they have captured. But our main task is accomplished, praise Light, thanks to Rafel and the Lightstone. We need to tend our wounded, assess our losses, and send word to the Mountain and the Forest, before we decide what to do next.” Thus agreed, they set out on the march back to the derelict farm that hid the Lightfriends’ dwelling, taking every precaution against pursuit, but none came. They went silently, not only to avoid detection, but because all of them were occupied with thoughts of what had happened in the Dark City, and silent praise went up from many for their deliverance from the Dark Lord. Brann glanced at the Lightstone, still glowing faintly on Rafel’s breast. It was still difficult for him to believe the power in that simple, pebble-like white stone, the power that had hurled the evil spirit that had possessed the Dark Lord back across unimaginable reaches of time and space to its own dark world, and shaken the Dark City apart.
Other thoughts were crowding in on him too, as he looked sideways at Tamorine, marching sturdily beside him, almost as though he wanted to make sure that she was there, real, alive, unharmed. He remembered the way his heart had hammered in his chest and the horror he had felt as the tottering buildings of the street had crashed down towards her. He had been unsure even to almost the last moment, but his absolute terror for her, and his premonition of the total sense of loss he would feel if she were killed, had told him the truth. He loved Tamorine, not as a comrade and Sword-Brother, but as the woman he wanted to spend his life with. Such feelings, though, must wait. There was first the aftermath of the battle to be dealt with, as she had said; the wounded to tend, the dead to lay to rest, the outposts of the Dark Lord’s realm to be recovered and controlled. His thoughts were interrupted by the breaking of the silence by a dull thudding sound which at first he could not place. Then he realised that it was the sound of galloping horses. The others heard it too, and turned, ready for a mercenaries’ attack, but though they saw the horses coming towards them, the beasts were riderless. Some of the Ketai left their ranks and made towards the animals, which they now understood must be fleeing the collapsing City. Tamorine cried “They will be run down!” “Not they!” laughed Ket-Jal. “The Ketai have always been herders and breeders of horses, Lady Tamorine. The Dark Ones stole our horse herds, but they could not steal the knowledge of our people. Watch.” Brann , Tamorine and the others did as he asked, and Brann thought that if the Ketai could calm and capture the horses, the beasts would be very useful.
The Ketai were using their spears as poles to guide the animals, talking to them softly and making little sounds that seemed to calm them and slow them. Many of the horses were without saddle or bridle, but one of the Ketai vaulted on to the back of the lead horse and rode it bareback, holding on to the long mane. Once he had the beast under control and slowed to a steady trot, the others followed and more of the Ketai mounted the horses on the outer edge of the herd, urging the rest into a controlled, wedge-shaped group. Ket-Jal called to his men. “Take them to the farmstead, and care for them. We will follow.” He turned to the others, and said, “The horses are still nervous and skittish, but my people can control them. I could not let you ride them, though. They need calming and care before they are ready.” “We can march” Brann said, “and when the Ketai have the horses under control, we will be able to make use of them. As Tamorine said, we will need to send word to the Lords of the Mountain and the Forest that the Dark Lord has been defeated, and a mounted messenger will travel more quickly.” They continued their march back to the farmstead, still wary in case there should be any roving bands of mercenaries about still, but no man accosted them, and at last they saw the dilapidated building ahead of them. In the courtyard they found that the Ketai had managed to adapt one of the tumbledown barns into suitable stabling for the captured horses. Fortunately the beasts looked well-fed, for it would be some time before they could find feed for them, but they had water and seemed grateful for it. Ket-Jal paused to speak to his men, while the others went inside the building and down the hidden stairway to the Lightfriends’ caverns
.Brann and Tamorine were anxious to assess the state of their forces and find out who was wounded, and if any had been lost. They found that there was some bad news, but not as bad as they had expected. Three of the Mountain fighters were dead, several wounded, but few seriously. Brann had lost Harin, the little quick hunter, and the Swordsman Aldaran. He paused to commiserate with Harith, Harin’s brother, who said ” I mourn him, yes, but the Lightfriends assure me that he will be with Light in the Joyous Place. And he died bravely, and to free Li’is. I am proud of him.” Brann’s own cousin, Javan, was wounded badly, but not mortally, and though Javan’s brother, Jamin, was naturally hovering anxiously as the Healers tended Javin, Brann saw that Javan’s other cousin, Tavan , who had taken so long to make peace with Javan, was just as concerned. Tarn had found Kerrin and was sitting beside him, waiting their turn till the Healers had dealt with more serious hurts. Kerrin had a shallow cut on his side, and Brann said ” Tarn told me how you came to his aid, Kerrin. Thank you.” The mountain man glanced up at him, and said only “He is my Sword-Brother.” Brann could sense, though, the feeling behind Kerrin’s words, and replied. “Mine too. I am grateful, Kerrin.” Rafel, meanwhile, had crossed the main cavern and stood facing them all. The Lightfriends who were not tending the wounded joined him, and he called “Children of Light, let us give thanks to Light for our victory.” They quieted as he raised his arms and led them in prayer. He wore the Lightstone openly now and it glowed softly on his breast as he prayed. When the time of prayer was finished, he said. “The Dark Lord is defeated, but there is still work to do to restore normal life in Li’is. For now, though, we may rest, and eat, and sleep, and recover from the battle.” Brann and Tamorine made their way to him, and Tamorine asked “How is it with the Lightfriends, and the Students? We know one Lightfriend and one Student were killed.” Rafel answered ” We lost no more of our Brothers-in-Light, for the Ketai protected them well. Of the Students, one of the Masked Ones was slain and two wounded, and another of the students has a severe wound. It is well with the others.” “Do the Masked Ones feel they have fulfilled their vow now?” Brann asked, and Rafel said “They do. They feel they have regained their honour by their actions today.” “And the Ketai?” Brann went on. ” They have some losses” Rafel said, sadly. “Those who fought to protect the Lightfriend who was killed, and were cut down alongside him, and some others. Four killed, in all, and several wounded. But all who die in Light touch Light. They will be in the Joyous Place.” He sighed. “We can make a full reckoning tomorrow, but, as I said, tonight we need food and rest. It has been a long day and a fierce battle.”