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Arkingham's Legacy
by Darrell Whitney


Part I
"The Inheritance"

Kyli Madison's first look at her uncle's house wasn't very prepossessing. Like most Motavian houses, it was single-story, made of brick covered in dull yellow-white plaster. Being the home of a wealthy man, it was large and sprawling, but it showed signs of disrepair and neglect even from the outside.

"Not much, is it?" asked Arah, her companion. Arah was a native Motavian, short, broad-shouldered, and blue-furred, with a beaklike mouth, tufted ears, and wide red eyes. The two girls had been friends for a dozen years, so it was only natural that when Kyli received a surprise inheritance, Arah would keep her company on the trip to Kadary to see and perhaps sell the house.

"Too much, if you ask me," remarked the sullen-faced cart driver. "Been quiet these past five months; oughter stay that way." It was the most the girls had heard out of the close-mouthed man during the one-hour drive. He handed down their traveling cases, then turned the cart and was quickly headed back up the track without so much as a goodbye. The girls looked at each other grimly.

"This is starting to feel like one of your grandfather's ghost stories," Kyli decided. "The old, decaying mansion, the standoffish locals dropping dark hints, the innocent maidens about to walk into the jaws of danger..."

Arah placed a paw against Kyli's forehead.

"You've definitely been out in the sun too long," she decided.

"Oh, I know this is the twentieth century AW, but it's still creepy."

"Well, it's not like you want to keep the place, right?"

"True," Kyli sighed, then looked for a ray of hope. "Maybe it's nicer on the inside?"

Her hopes, unfortunately, did not come true. Though the house was lavishly furnished, with valuable antiques in many rooms, there was a thick layer of dust covering everything. Metal fittings were tarnished and rusted, and the air was musty and close.

"This is a shame," Arah said, inspecting some of the furnishings. "This was once a very beautiful home."

"I wonder why no one took care of it. Uncle's advocate wrote that I'd inherited my uncle's house and possessions, so why didn't he also hire a caretaker? The estate looks rich enough to pay for it."

The tip of Arah's beak dipped in the Motavian equivalent of a frown.

"I hate to say this, but if the carter and the people we met in the village are any example, it's possible that no one would take the job."

"Well, if we're going to stay here tonight, we'd better find ourselves a broom and dustcloth and get to work. I'm glad we thought to pick up some food in the village before coming out here. Want to take a look around and see what we're up against?"

"Why not?"

Kyli and Arah found cleaning tools in a servants' pantry adjoining the kitchen, and within a couple of hours had gotten one bedroom and the food preparation and storage areas cleaned up.

"I'm just glad the well still works," Kyli decided, washing her hands.

Arah nibbled on a thorn apple.

"True; at least the house seems solid enough, just neglected. You know, you'll be set for life if you can sell all this."

"The library alone must be worth a fortune. Did you see how many books there are?" The printing press was a recent invention, and libraries packed with dozens of books were still a rarity. One whole wall of Kyli's late uncle's study was covered with nothing but bookshelves, the works all valuable hand-copied editions.

"What kind of man was your uncle, anyway? How did he make all his money?"

Kyli reached for a loaf of bread and began cutting slices for sandwiches.

"I'm not really sure. Mom never talked much about him. Dad actually said more; Douglas Arkingham was never on his list of favorite people, but I did get the impression that Uncle was a self-made man."

Arah tapped her furred fingers on the table.

"That might explain it. A number of self-made men are those robber baron types. Maybe your uncle lied or cheated and the locals have held it against him ever since."

"Could be," Kyli agreed, but she found that she couldn't shake off the horror-story imagery that gripped her mind. Thinking about Arkingham made her uncomfortable; it played a delicate frisson of fear through her mind, though she didn't know why. Probably it was just the effect of the atmosphere, the abandoned house, the wary locals, and the estrangement between her uncle and the rest of the family, their cumulative influence being quite disturbing.

They ate in relative silence; Arah wasn't prone to chatter and Kyli didn't feel much like talking. Nervous energy, though, she had in abundance, and so she went back to cleaning once she was done taking, Arah's advice and starting with the library. The girls soon had the overstuffed sand worm leather chairs and the dark wood desk gleaming. Arah started dusting the small sculptures and bric-a-brac set out on the mantel, while Kyli turned her attention to the books. One by one she took them down from each shelf, dusted out the shelf and covers alike, and replaced the books.

It was when she reached the third shelf that she made the discovery. When she pulled out a dull-looking chemistry text, there was the spine of another book behind it.

"Arah, come here a second, will you?"

"What is it?"

"A hidden shelf!"

The girls excitedly stripped the rest of the shelf, finding that a recess had been built right into the wall behind the bookcase, about two feet wide. A panel could be lowered to conceal it, but the panel was not in place.

"I'd never have seen it, otherwise," Kyli admitted.

"So what was hidden?" Arah asked.

"Let's see." Kyli pulled out the first book and looked at the title page. "The History of Sorcery Cults in Motavia Following the Great Collapse by Antonio Mason. That sounds either creepy or dull or both." She handed it to Arah and took out the next one. It was named Corruption in Darkness, a translation of Guraasejpaa^ojar ^AameeTvaa, which was even creepier. Then there was Esper Magic and Technique, A Comparative Study, the Menobe Writings, and a slim volume entitled Ritual Spells in Sorcery which had apparently been authored by Douglas Arkingham himself.

The last item was the oddest, though. It was a thick tome, bound in leather of a texture Kyli had never felt before. Its fittings were metal, gleaming silvery without a hint of tarnish, and inset in the cover was an unusual rune of the same metal, its shape a combination of angles and curves that beckoned the eye to follow its outline. It gave Kyli the eerie feeling that she could stare at it for hours and not master its true speech. The title was scribed on the first page: The Testament of Xayn.

For some reason, this book unnerved Kyli more than all the others, despite their eerie titles; with a shudder, she thrust it back onto the shelf. Arah helped to replace the others.

"All right," the Motavian said, "now I agree with you. This is creepy. Those books look rare, some of them like first-edition manuscripts, and I've heard of the Menobe Writings. Grandfather once told a story about how the elders of Tonoe burned it and exiled the one who was trying to buy the book."

"I thought the last one was the nastiest. Did you see that sigil on the front? For a second, I didn't think I'd be able to look away! And what was that book by Uncle doing in there? Did he study that...black magic? I thought magic was just an old fable." At least, she thought, it explained the estrangement between her uncle and the rest of his family.

Arah shrugged.

"All I know is, getting to sleep tonight isn't going to be easy."

She was right, but even so getting to sleep was still easier than what came next. The sigil from the Testament's cover burned redly in Kyli's dreams, dreams in which a myriad of colors undulated amidst waves of blackness like an ever-shifting aurora. She would stare at the shifting, changing forms, certain that there was some pattern there, that if only she could decipher it the key to secrets long untold would be in her hands. The knowledge of the forgotten and the unknowable beckoned, and Kyli felt herself torn between the urge to learn more and a terrible, soul-wrenching desire to flee. She awoke trembling and frightened.

The morning was bright and sunny, though, and a filling breakfast made things seem pleasant and normal again. Kyli's dream was, if not forgotten, at least pushed out of her mind. She'd decided to sell Arkingham's collection of creepy-but-valuable books, and with that decision she and Arah had proceeded with the examination and inventory of his legacy. The house itself would fetch a good price, though probably from an out-of-towner. Then it would be back to Zema for Kyli and a return to normal life with her future financially secure.

The chiming doorbell, though, cut into her self-assurance with a razor's edge. Both girls went down to answer it; though neither put it into words, they didn't want to be alone with whatever would happen next.

There was no monster waiting for them in the late-morning sun, though, only a brown-haired man wearing a simple but elegantly-cut shirt and pants.

"Ms. Madison?" he addressed Kyli.

"Yes. Who are you?" she asked bluntly, the atmosphere of the house making her waspish.

"Artur Waycroft," he replied.

"Oh, you're my uncle's advocate, the one who wrote to me about the inheritance in the first place. Would you like to come in?" It was nice to see a friendly face from a Kadarite for a change.

"No; as much as I'd like to, I'm afraid that I have a great deal to do. I only came to make sure my secretary had given you the right keys when you stopped by the office yesterday, and to deliver this." He extended an envelope to her. "I'd have left this with the keys when I was out yesterday afternoon, but your uncle's instructions were to see it placed directly in your hands."

Kyli took the envelope; it was thick and sealed with wax. An irregular shape bulged from inside.

"Thank you."

"Not at all; Arkingham was a friend as well as a client. The best daika player in all of Kadary, too."

Arah's ears twitched at the mention of the ancient Motavian game of chance and strategy.

"Did you say you were a daika player? Perhaps we can have a game one of these evenings. Not many Parmanians know the game.

"I'd enjoy that, Ms--?"

"Arah."

"Thank you. Yes, I'd enjoy that very much. I suppose," he said with a slightly wistful expression, as if he wanted to accept Arah's offer right then and there, "that I really do need to be going. Good day to you both."

"Good day to you," Kyli wished him in return. Once Waycroft had gone, she broke the seal on the envelope and took out its contents.

"What is it?"

"Well, there's a letter, and then there's this."

Kyli held out a medallion on a slender gold chain. Inscribed on the medallion was a strange rune which she'd never seen before.

"How odd. Does the letter explain it?"

"I don't know. Let's see." She unfolded it and began to read.

Dear Kyli:

I write these words knowing that death will soon take me. Disease is a terrible enemy, and one which cannot be overcome by wit or technique, and I am afraid I waited too long before seeking medical aid. So, die I must, and my work must fall to my heir. I have chosen you, for you are young and your mind may still be open to new possibilities.

Your mother chided me often for what she saw as a morbid fascination with the occult, but there are truths which will not pass by merely because one is ignorant of them. Xayn was put down for daring to reveal that truth--look to his wisdom! The Guraasejpaa^ojar ^AameeTvaa is incomplete--a pox on translators who seek to "protect" their audience--but there is more than enough in Menobe to suffice! Set your feet on the path and you may yet endure the coming darkness.

Your loving uncle,

Doug Arkingham

Kyli shuddered. What did Arkingham mean, "truths that will not pass by?" What was the "coming darkness"? She read it over again, the letter from a dead man urging her to consult the strange and disquieting books he'd left behind. Was it merely the ravings of a madman, or was there truly something to it, some secret he'd learned through his study of forbidden knowledge?

"There really are only two choices," Arah said. Until then, Kyli hadn't even realized she'd been speaking aloud. "Either you throw the letter away and forget about it, or you open up those nasty books and find out what Arkingham meant." She shivered. "As for me, I'd take the first choice."

Kyli held up the pendant, wondering if the rune meant anything. It hadn't been mentioned in the letter.

"I don't know, Arah. My uncle wanted me to do this. It's why he left me this house. Don't I at least owe him the courtesy of looking?"

"Not if what he wants you to do is wrong."

Kyli looked at the letter again. Her uncle sounded so desperate in it, scared for her. Maybe he had been crazy. Whatever he was afraid of, he'd learned it in his study of the occult, a dubious source at best, but what if there was something to it?

Shouldn't she at least find out what it was? Forbidden things weren't necessarily evil; some were taboo out of fear and ignorance. Many Motavians and Parmanians despised each other's races, and yet look at herself and Arah. Perhaps fear of the occult was like racial prejudice, an artificial taboo founded on negative emotions instead of facts.

"I need to know, Arah," Kyli whispered. "I need to know what this legacy really is."

Part II
"Forbidden Secrets"

Once Kyli had made her decision, she threw herself into it wholeheartedly, studying Arkingham's books with singleminded intensity. Often that intensity was needed, for none were easy reads. Some were scholarly works written for a highly educated audience in a pedantic, dry style, while others might have been written by madmen who considered things such as grammar, language, and sentence structure to be minor inconveniences at best. Some were centuries old and used a form of Parmanian which was often very different from that used in the present, while others were apparently translated out of another language, further impairing understanding. It took a great deal of concentration for Kyli to make any progress in understanding them.

Mason's History of Sorcery Cults looked like the most innocuous of the lot, so she started with that one. Almost immediately she found a reference to Xayn. It seemed that he had been the high priest of a widespread and feared cult based in Kadary in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries AW. Xayn's cult had practiced blasphemous rites devoted to some kind of monster-god, including sacrifice of living Parmanians and the magical conjuring or summoning of their god's demonic servants. Eventually, the cult's activities grew so vile that the armies of Zema, Molcum, and Piata united to hunt it down, slaughtering priests and followers alike in an orgy of death nearly as repulsive as the cult's own rites. Xayn himself was burned at the stake for his crimes.

Near the end of the section there were notes written in the margin; Kyli saw that the handwriting was the same as in her uncle's letter. Arkingham's comments were speculative; his theory was that the Testament of Xayn had been written during the cult's last days to keep the occult knowledge alive in case the worst happened, as it had.

Reading about Xayn was almost enough to change Kyli's mind about her course of action. The man had apparently been a hideous fanatic, unless Mason's sources were highly biased, whose evil had been sufficient to unite three separate political entities--and Molcum was a Motavian town, yet they and the Parmanians had been able to put aside their biases and work for the common good? That, above all, told how horrid Xayn's practices must have been.

Yet, regardless of how palatable it might or might not be, there could be truth from such a source. That was the grim thought that came to the girl as she sat at the library desk, trying to decide whether to open the Testament of Xayn that sat before her. Her uncle had hoped she'd have an open mind; was that what he meant? That she'd be willing to search the writings of a monster in order to find out something important?

Kyli looked at the inset sigil on the Testament's cover. A queer feeling possessed her, and she held out her uncle's pendant, looking at them side by side. She was wrong; the two runes were entirely different. Even the materials were different; the pendant was of common gold and copper, while the book's rune was made of a strange, silvery metal that gleamed without being polished. Kyli let the pendant fall back into place around her neck.

I can't start judging ideas by their source alone, she finally reached a decision. I'll read and decide on my own.

She opened the Testament of Xayn.

It didn't take long for Kyli to wish she hadn't. The tome was, as she'd expected, written by Xayn, a kind of autobiography mixed with scripture. He'd laid out his dark beliefs for all to read, and their substance was frightening indeed. Xayn claimed that ages ago, an immensely powerful force had been sealed away in a reality outside that in which the Algo solar system existed. This terrible dark force was a being of ultimate evil, and was scared by monstrosities only slightly less fearsome than itself. When the stars were right, these beings could escape their prison and enter Algo's reality and strive to weaken the soul from this side. Similarly, with certain magical spells and rituals, it was possible to create a temporary rift in the seal to contact or summon the Dark Force or certain of its minions.

The truly frightening part of Xayn's mythology, though, was the revelation contained in the Testament's fourth stanza. It was couched in airy, mystic language, which Kyli had to fight to understand, but the gist of it was that not only had the minions of the ultimate darkness worked for eons to destroy the seal that bound their master, but that they had already done so! When next the stars turned, whether it be years, decades, centuries, or millennia in the future, Dark Force would be released fully from its prison to rule in Algo and throughout the universe. All life would be crushed out, save for those of the darkness' chosen followers.

This was the secret of Xayn's hideous religion. He had become high priest of his monstrous cult because he was convinced the dark god he had devoted himself to would triumph in the end of things. Perhaps it was despair, the fear for the future that had driven him, or perhaps it was greed and the lust for power. Either way, it was horrid to read of the blasphemies Xayn had committed in his master's name.

The entire concept was hideous, alien to everything Kyli had been taught. There was no reason why she should have believed it, the words of a probably insane fanatic, just because they were written down in an old book.

Xayn was put down for daring to reveal the truth.

Was it so? Was the world no more than a sham, a feeble veneer that covered ultimate horror--a veneer that was soon to be torn away?

Kyli's fingers trembled as she turned page after page of the centuries-old book, amazed at how intact the paper was. Time had affected it only slightly, as if the twisted creed it outlined would not submit to such an ephemeral thing as a few hundred years. Almost against her will the girl kept on, lighting a lamp as the sun set in the west, absorbing knowledge of the Hakenlefts, the Gi-le-Fargs, the Gy-Laguiahs, the Imagiomages, the Dark Riders, and the Soldierfiends, all minions of the ultimate darkness. Kyli read of the Outerbeasts, who crawled wormlike in the spaces between one reality and another, and of spells that could contact the alien minds of these minions and even call them into the world when it was not their time. She read the forbidden seventeenth stanza, but an inner voice guided her past the trap that lurked there for the unwary. Was it her uncle's influence from beyond the grave? Or was it something else? There was Arkingham blood in Kyli's own veins, the same blood that had made her uncle a sorcerer. Perhaps, she thought, there was a link between her and the dark book, something kindred that made her aware of the dangers Xayn had left for the unwary.

"Kyli..."

The girl's head snapped around at the intrusion, her concentration shattered.

"Who dar--oh...Arah..."

It's nearly midnight, Kyli. You've been reading for hours; you didn't even stop to eat."

"I didn't? No...no, I guess not. I didn't even feel hungry; I still don't, except to learn more."

Arah blinked, the Motavian's red eyes wide.

"Kyli, you've never cared for books; what's in those things that draws you like this?"

Kyli shook her head.

"You wouldn't understand."

"Kyli!"

Arkingham's niece sighed.

"All right...but don't say I didn't warn you." So she told Arah what she'd read. Not everything, of course; somehow the worst of the horrors seemed flat and unconvincing when Kyli thought of describing them aloud. The printed page had its own magic, it seemed. She told Arah enough, though, to make the Motavian's beak gape open in shock.

"Kyli...are you saying that you believe this."

"I...don't know." She could sense the doubt in her friend's voice. "My uncle must have; it's the only thing his letter could have meant. I don't know what he wants from me, though...it isn't in the Testament. Perhaps when I read the Menobe Writings I'll understand."

Her hand was already reaching for that ancient book when Arah touched her shoulder.

"Not tonight, Kyli, please? You need rest, then a decent meal. You won't do yourself any good if you wear yourself out, and you probably wouldn't be able to understand what you were reading, anyway."

Arah had that stubborn look on her face that told Kyli her Motavian friend wasn't going to give her any peace about it, so she gave in, grumbling. Once in bed, though, she found that she couldn't sleep from thinking about the accursed lore she'd read. It was a need, burning in her mind, almost like an alcoholic's need for drink. Each page had brought a strange feeling of revulsion mingled with the almost erotic thrill of the forbidden, of knowing a secret no one else did.

Was this how her uncle had felt when he had begun to study the occult? If so, Kyli could understand why he'd been ostracized by family and neighbors. There was a compelling, dark radiance to these nightmarish things that made all else pale by comparison. What meaning did day-to-day living have for her when Dark Force lurked on the threshold?

Before long, she was out of bed again, creeping through the darkened house to the library. Kyli relit the lamp, and began to read the Writings. This book, it seemed, was a translation; the original author was a Dezolisian, the keeper of the wizard's citadel called Menobe on that far-flung planet. Its reputation was so fearsome among the commoners of Dezolis that it had been one of four structures known since antiquity as the "torture palaces." The translator could only speculate on the gruesome acts perpetuated by generations of sorcerers that had inhabited the vile keep.

The book itself, though, contained few details of these acts, except by implication. The Menobe Writings, originally titled Menobee Bee^aa, were as far as Kyli could tell, a kind of sorcerer's handbook to be given to each Menobian initiate. Laid out in a cold, emotionless tone that was almost more frightening than Xayn's religious adorations, were spells, rituals and rites, runes and symbols. Kyli found the meaning of the symbol on her pendant; it simply meant "guraasejpaa^o," or evil, believed to be the sign of Dark Force.

She also discovered what the pendant was for.

There was a magical ritual called the Devotion set forth in the Writings. It was more than a spell; it was a kind of gateway to power, an investiture by which the magician invited the power of the Dark Force to fill his or her body, changing it and giving it magic beyond measure. The Devotion required a number of specially prepared items; the pendant was one of them.

Now Kyli understood. Arkingham had feared the coming darkness and had chosen to ally with it, becoming the conqueror rather than the conquered. That was his plan for Kyli, too; he would save his niece from the horror lurking beyond by allowing her to join with it.

It was the only way.

Part III
"The Choice"

"Kyli, that's completely insane!" Arah said, wasting little time on mincing words. She'd found her friend the next morning, slumped over the desk, crying softly.

"Don't you see, Arah? Can't you understand?" Kyli pleaded. She'd made what now seemed a huge mistake in telling the Motavian the complete truth when she'd asked Kyli what was wrong. Arah was her friend, though, and she wanted to be honest. More than that, she didn't want Arah to be swept off the face of the world when the darkness came.

"I understand that in less than a day and night, you've become completely mesmerized by these myths and stories!"

Kyli shook her head.

"It's more than that. I couldn't just take it on faith alone, no matter how strongly it called to me. Look here," she said, pointing to a passage in the Menobe Writings. "This tells how this pendant has to be imbued with certain rituals before it can be used in the Devotion. Uncle died before he was able to go through the Devotion, but he did finish this part."

She gripped the amulet tightly.

"The pendant now contains a tiny fraction of Dark Force's power."

Kyli took a deep breath. She'd only done this once the night before and was amazed it had worked even then. Concentrate, she told herself. Focus your mind. She clenched the amulet so tightly the edges of the medallion bit into her palm. Then she felt it, like a tiny spark humming in the back of her brain, urging her to let it out. Kyli raised her hand, pointed at the fireplace, and commanded, "Flaeli!"

Streams of fire shot from her hand and smashed into the logs in the fireplace. The force of the spell cracked and broke several; the remaining chunks were set alight, and burned merrily. Kyli sighed and released the amulet while Arah stared, wide-eyed, at the fireplace, then Kyli, then back and forth between the two.

"Light," she breathed, "it's true. It's really true, isn't it?"

Kyli nodded once, slowly and finally.

"Now do you understand, Arah? Everything in these books is real. We have to accept it."

The expression that filled the Motavian's face was one of utter despair.

In the following days, the town of Kadary saw a resurgence in gossip. Arkingham's niece came into town regularly, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of her Motavian friend. She visited a large number of stores and made strange requests, seeking specific herbs and chemicals, or commissioning items of rare woods and metals. On more than one occasion, a storekeeper was taken aback because he had the precise item she needed, on account of it having been ordered by Douglas Arkingham in the weeks before his death.

The Kadarites hadn't liked Arkingham much. He was standoffish for the most part, and he had odd interests. Even Waycroft, Arkingham's one real friend in town, had felt that Kyli's late uncle was looking too deeply into things that weren't...healthy. "Like uncle, like niece," they murmured to one another with knowing looks.

There was fear in those looks as well. Those Kyli had dealt with had seen her face, and in her eyes was the same haunted gaze they had seen in Arkingham's as well. Waycroft paid two visits to the house out of concern, but each time he was turned away by a sad-faced Arah, who told him that they were busy with an important project and couldn't be disturbed.

Kyli didn't know that there was talk about her, and if she had known, she wouldn't have cared. Nothing mattered now, nothing except somehow escaping the wave of destruction that would soon consume all Algo. The Devotion required many preparations to imbue certain items with the proper magical power and otherwise insure that they were fit to their tasks.

There was a certain irony involved in this, for a true magician could have abandoned the entire ritual paraphernalia and called forth the Devotion by a mere act of will, just as Kyli had used the power of the amulet to cast the Flaeli spell. After the ritual was completed, Kyli would be a sorcerer, a true initiate, but to become one she needed the complex rites and painstaking preparations. Thankfully, unlike Xayn and the nearly as hideous Corruption in Darkness, the Menobe Writings were focused not on the whys and wherefores but the how, enabling her to comprehend what she was to do.

It took nearly three weeks to fully complete her preparations, but at last everything was assembled and ready. Another four days passed before the dark of the moon, the symbolic time when darkness, and hence Dark Force, was at its greatest over Motavia.

Kyli lit the carefully blended incense composed of rare herbs in its censers made of sand newt skulls. As the soft scent began to fill the air, Kyli laid out the two circles, a small one of powdered substances and a larger around it of desertleech ichor mixed with certain other chemicals. With a silver wand, Kyli broke the circles in specific places as indicated in the Menobe Writings. She placed the book on a lectern and opened it to the page where the Devotion began.

She looked sadly at Arah, aware of the Motavian girl's despair. Kyli could feel it, too. Every act she took towards the completion of the Devotion drove it home. There was something alien about it, the mixing of herbs and chemicals, the incantations in a long-dead language, and the weird, symbolic sacrifices. Each act in preparation merely emphasized the wrongness of it, the strange, different world she was entering. Xayn's world, so different from that she had grown up with. A world where evil was triumphant.

Now Kyli would become part of that evil. Not because she wanted to, but because the only other choice was a gruesome, horror-filled death as the ultimate darkness consumed all Algo. She wondered how much of a change it would be, becoming a sorcerer. The Writings referred to apprentices who had enacted the Devotion as Mystcapes, and there were hints that they possessed certain nonhuman attributes other than the ability to use magic.

The girl took a deep breath. There was no more time to waste, no reason for delay. The scent of the incense was sweet with an underlying hint of overripeness--the perfume of decay--as Kyli stepped up to the lectern.

The strange words began to roll from Kyli's tongue as she read them aloud. Each trilled off her lips, some guttural and harsh, some delicate and fragile, like a tiny needle sliding into soft flesh. The flames in the eight tallow candles guttered smokily. Slowly, Kyli could feel the rush of power growing, the itch in her mind as the ritual began to gather magic to her. It entered her, flowing like ethereal streams just beneath her skin. The magic wasn't natural to her body; it wanted release, but she had to hold it in, had to keep it under control.

Between the two circles, symbols began to form, called into being by Kyli's will and the words she chanted. The symbols glowed with a sickly yellow radiance, a nauseating hue that was somehow repulsive, the runes that formed somehow full of wrongness. The candles flickered and dies, but the putrescent gleam of the magic circle kept the room fully illuminated.

The power Kyli was summoning began to hurt, then, like thousands of tiny slivers cutting and tingling beneath her skin. She wasn't a magician; not only did the magic want to be released but her own body rejected it, striving to force it out. She arched her back as the pain increased with every word she chanted, but Kyli knew she had to keep her composure and not give in, or the ritual would fail and the escaping energies quite possibly cause her serious harm.

Arah cringed back against the wall, barely able to think, as wispy filaments began to rise from the circle as if made of coalesced light and flowed towards Kyli, touching the pendant and beginning to be absorbed into it. The medallion glowed redly as waves of pure force flowed into the gold and copper.

In the circle, something was taking shape. It was the image of a face, huge and monstrous, nearly as big as Kyli's entire body. Its eyes were sunken pits, glowing balefully, while its fanged mouth gnashed and snarled. Pure and utter hatred was writ large in every line of that monstrous visage.

It was, beyond all doubt, the face of Dark Force.

The huge face opened its maw and spewed forth a wave of purest jet black, like darkness made real, given a physical form. It washed over Kyli and she screamed, her pendant glowing fiercely as the shadow crawled over her as if seeking a way to enter her body, fill her with the black blood of darkness.

Seeing her friend being engulfed by the shadows gave Arah strength. Anger burned inside her, at this thing, at the books that predicted its coming, above all at Douglas Arkingham, who had deliberately caused his niece to be exposed to this horror. The Motavian girl's sharp, titanium-bladed dagger almost flew into her hand.

But what to do?

It was too late to interrupt the spell; Kyli was no longer chanting. The ritual was done; all that remained was for the effects to be carried out. Attacking Dark Force would be just as useless; even if by some miracle Arah's knife could hurt the monster it would be capable of obliterating her in turn. The insane thought that she could save Kyli by striking her down flickered through the girl's mind, but she saw the fallacy in that at once.

Then the idea cane to her. Eyes on the scarlet pinpoint among the black wave, Arah sprang at Kyli and grabbed the pendant. It was ice-cold, freezing her skin right through her fur. Kyli grappled ineffectually with her, fighting to keep Arah from interfering, but there was too much pain for her to do anything.

Afraid that just yanking the amulet off might hurt Kyli, Arah brought up her dagger and pulled the chain across its edge. The soft gold parted, and the Motavian hurled the medallion across the room to get it away from both of them.

A sudden, soundless explosion knocked both girls over, spilling the censers, toppling the lectern. The glowing symbols blazed brilliantly, then were gone. The leering face of Dark Force filled with a horrific, unfathomable rage, and then it, too was gone. All was dark and still in the room, the cool, natural darkness on the Motavian night.

Kyli looked up at her friend with wide, staring eyes.

"You ruined it," she breathed.

"You're darned right I did!" Arah snapped, getting to her feet. her hand throbbed painfully; it would need a healer's attention.

"But why?" Kyli wailed. "You saw it. You know it's real, not just some crazy story my uncle believed. We don't have a choice; we can join it or die!"

Arah snorted, fixing her gaze squarely on the Parmanian girl.

"Kyli, the only thing that appeared in this room was an image of that demon, but that was enough for me to know that I am never going to pledge myself to it, no matter what might happen. Dark Force is pure, unadulterated evil! I'm going to fight with my last breath to try and keep that thing out of our world, not open doors to let it in!"

"But...I showed you the stanzas in the Testament. You know that Dark Force will win in the end."

Arah shook her head.

"You know, I'm not sure we know anything of the sort. Xayn wrote it, yes, but that doesn't mean it's true. He worshiped Dark Force, after all. Maybe he really believed it would win because of his faith. Or, maybe he wrote that deliberately to make other people think the battle was over before it even began. Despair is a powerful weapon of evil." Her ears twitched. "It worked on you, didn't it? On your uncle, too."

Slowly, Kyli rose to her feet, wonderment dawning on her face.

"You mean that, don't you?"

Arah nodded firmly.

"If we don't have hope, then why are we bothering? Living as a slave to Dark Force is no different than being dead."

"You're right!" Kyli exclaimed. "Light, I've been such an idiot!"

Arah clicked her beak in a Motavian grin.

"Well, that's all right. I'm used to it."

Kyli scowled in mock anger. "So, if you're so smart, what are we going to do with all this occult stuff? I don't want it lying around where it might tempt me again."

"I suppose a bonfire is out of the question?"

"Arah!"

"Oh, all right. Why not give it to Motavia Academy in Piata? They're scholars; they know what to do with things like this, at least more than we do."

Kyli took a deep breath, then gave another long sigh.

"Okay, that sounds good. Let's try to get it all out of here as soon as possible." She looked around the room, at the remnants of the occult ritual--the remnants of a young woman's despair--and groaned.

"Arah, do you realize that now we have to get this cleaned up all over again?"

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