"Princess!" A voice breaks the stillness of night "Princess Jadis! Are you awake?"
My eyes open in the darkness. I have not slept. "Have you made the preparations for the journey, slave?"
"I have, Princess," the voice whispers in response, "We may depart as soon as you desire."
"Then let us make haste," I say, rising from my bed. With a soft pulse of magic, a glowing orb flickers to life before me to illuminate the Bedchamber of the Crown Princess of Charn. I do not pause to dwell upon the fabulous luxury of the scene; such things are commonplace to my refined sensibilities, and in any case, time is the fleetest foe of all.
I turn to the slave girl who has roused me. She nods, clearly comprehending my will, and proceeds to fetch suitable garments from my wardrobe. Here, I must regrettably contain my magnificence; our errand is one of speed and stealth, and so luxury and opulence, while appropriate to my station, must be set aside. I watch in the standing mirror as my slave girl garbs me in a simple dark silk gown and a traveling cloak; dreadfully common garments, yet I must temper my pride and bear it with grace and poise befitting a princess.
Before we depart, I permit myself one item of luxury. My slave girl produces a fabulous gemstone, smooth and red like a drop of blood, and bound in gold upon a black velvet band. I observe my reflection as the slave girl places the elegant jewel about my neck and clasps it shut. This is no mere bauble; it is the Heart of the Scion, the mark of the Heir to the Throne of Charn. Out of all my jewels, this one is the most precious, for if it is lost or stolen, then I shall possess no clear evidence of my rightful place at the head of the line of succession.
With all now prepared, we emerge from my bedchamber into the tight stone corridors of the Great Palace of Charn. The red eye of the sun has set, draping the halls in indelible curtains of shadow. The orb of light still floats above my palm, yet its feeble illumination reaches barely a few paces ahead in the lingering gloom. Still, it shall serve. I set off on the way, with my slave girl obediently following after.
Through the veins of the palace we glide like ghosts, down long promenades, past closed doorways, through hidden passages. Not a soul do we encounter upon our way, and the only sound that dares disturb the stillness of night is the soft tap of our footfalls, and the hushed whisper of skirts gliding across stone. Yet even this small sound stirs a sense of unease and peril in my heart, for if my mission is uncovered, all shall surely be undone.
After an uncertain stretch of time, perhaps minutes perhaps hours, there emerges from out of the shadows a great stone archway into which is set a heavy door of iron and ebony. The entrance to the dungeons. Here, my slave girl steps forth and produces a lantern, wrought of blackest onyx, and fashioned in the shape of a beastly claw clutching a glass vial. The slave girl pricks her finger upon one of the claws and lets a stream of blood drop into the flask, whereupon a soft crimson flame flickers to life.
My slave girl takes the lead as we proceed into the dungeon; and wisely so, for as I cross the threshold, powerful wards and counterspells take effect and my orb of light flickers and dies. We press on, down a narrow twisting stairway, deeper and deeper into the depths. Eventually, the walls vanish, revealing a vast chamber stretching out beyond sight into the gulf of darkness. The stairs wrap tightly about the central column like strangling vines about a tree as we descend to the dungeon floor. We do not hesitate even for a moment when we reach the foot of the stairs; my slave girl knows the way.
Our path takes us into a side passage, along a block of cells. I don't bother glancing at the sordid wretches imprisoned behind these iron bars, such things are beneath my notice. My slave girl is not nearly so aloof; I cannot help but notice her gaze flitting from one cell to the next. Her mind is doubtless considering each prisoner's fate; this one to the chopping block, that one to the torture chamber, this one to the altar of sacrifice, that one simply left to starve in solitude.
I can understand her unease of course; my slave girl once languished within one of these very cells. Indeed, I am the sole reason she yet lives, for it was I who plucked her from mortal peril upon the chopping block; a royal command staying the headsman's axe in its deadly plunge. It is a well-known recipe for crafting only the most loyal of slaves; her gratitude to me for lifting her from the jaws of death into a life of honored servitude is the tinder which kindles the eternal flame of loyalty in her bosom.
For my own part, I must confess that I have grown rather fond of this little slave girl of mine. I find little pleasures in indulging her simple desires, and entrust her with my confidence on a regular basis. Indeed, sometimes I forget for a moment the vast difference between our stations, and count her almost as a friend.
Alas, pleasant though her company is, I must not permit myself to grow overly attached to this precious little creature. She is after all nothing more than a slave; a valuable asset that must be made to serve her mistress's will before all else. I raise a hand to caress the jewel about my neck, reminding myself of what is truly important in the world. There may well come a day when I must sacrifice this dear companion of mine in order to attain some crucial advantage in the great game of power, and when that hour comes, I must not hesitate to pay the price of greatness. Mine is after all a high and lonely destiny.
Finally, we reach the end of the procession of cells, and come to a deep pool of dark water. A small stair leads down to a low stone wharf reaching out across the black glassy surface, where two flat-bottomed boats are secured. I take a seat in one of the boats while my slave girl unfastens the moorings, hangs the blood lantern above the bow, and pushes off from the wharf with oar in hand.
The slender boat glides gracefully across the smooth water and into a long dark tunnel. This is the River of Woe; the hidden subterranean canal that links the palace dungeons with the River of Charn. It was intended as an emergency measure to foil a siege or to affect a swift escape, but a hundred thousand years of glorious conquest have rendered this purpose obsolete. The most common use it has seen throughout the ages is to transport highborn prisoners to the place of execution in the Grand Plaza, without parading them through the streets like commoners. Tonight however, it shall serve its intended purpose as a secret escape from the Palace.
At the end of the tunnel, we come upon a large steel portcullis. Ordinarily this gate is kept lowered and tightly sealed, but tonight, a careful bribe and a secret royal command have left the heavy steel grate raised just enough for the boat to slip beneath it. As we pass under the iron teeth of the portcullis, like the maw of some ravening beast, I note with supreme relief that we have also passed beyond the reach of the dungeon wards and counterspells. My magic is free once again.
Just beyond the portcullis, the tunnel opens out upon the River of Charn. The entrance itself is carefully hidden beneath a bridge; any passing observer would count it nothing more than a sewer outlet. Deepest night reigns over the city; a sparse line of red lanterns standing sentry along the riverfront is the only illuminations to be seen. The silhouettes of the vast temples, towers, palaces, and pyramids are concealed against the solid blackness of the heavens. Onward the boat glides, borne swiftly against the current by subtle sorceries. My mission must not be delayed any longer.
It all began three days ago, when my slave girl revealed to me an urgent secret from one of my sister's slaves. It seems that wicked sister of mine has discovered a new source of magical power. It is said to be a fount of unspeakable might; even if I were to strip away all the rest of my sister's magic leaving only this new power, still I would be outmatched. That such a hideous strength should serve my sister and not my own royal self is simply unacceptable, and it shan't be permitted.
To this end, I set my slave girl at once to a secret correspondence with this other slave in order that she might learn as much as could be learned about the nature of this new power. Information was slow in coming, but in the end she was able to learn where exactly the secret of this power was hidden, and thither are we bound at this very moment. I must remember to devise a suitable prize for my slave girl for her diligence in my service; such a bounty of knowledge should not go unrewarded.
My sister's slave, the one who delivered the first crucial insight shall need a reward as well, for much has he risked in this regard. Had my sister uncovered his treachery, that poor slave would have been sent straight to the headsman, and that if he was lucky. I might possibly reward him by taking him into my service and shielding him from my sister's wrath. And yet, a slave who betrays one mistress may just as easily betray another; perhaps it would be safer to simply have his head chopped off and call the whole business done.
As to my sister herself, I can at least rest easy knowing that her fate is already sealed; once our royal father dies, and I assume my rightful place as Queen of Charn and Mistress of all that is and all that is to be, I shall have my sister put to death. It is a time-honored tradition of the great houses, and a proven means of avoiding usurpers, civil wars, and crises of succession. Let my wretched sister plot and scheme as she desires; it shall not keep me from ordering her beheaded in the Grand Plaza, or strangled with a silk ribbon, or locked in a bedchamber with a stiletto or a goblet of poison. So many options to choose between; such a pity she can only be executed once. Though I suppose if she begs, I may yet deign to spare her life. For a time. But this is a matter for future consideration; once this new power is secure in my possession there shall be ample time to arrange the details of my sister's execution.
The lights on the riverbank march past, growing farther between as the boat slides further and further away from the city center. After a time, they vanish altogether, leaving only the flickering blood lantern at the prow to defy the darkness. We have passed beyond the city limits of Charn, into the wild lands between the great cities. Still, we press on, undaunted by any piffling darkness; my magic is more than sufficient to foil the beasts and demons that haunt these wild places. Any vile creature we encounter shall be put to a swift end.
As the journey continues, I am more concerned with that which we do not encounter, for I see no slave barges upon the river. The great temples of Charn, always hungry for sacrificial offerings, demand ever greater hosts of slaves to feed the fires of magic. The cities upstream, having long since been vassaled in glorious conquest, are bound by royal command to send a constant tribute of slaves to give their lives upon the sacrificial altars of Charn. And yet these great slave barges have slowed in recent years. If this continues much longer, the pace of sacrifice may slacken in its growth, or perhaps even stagnate. Perhaps the ruler of these city states have grown arrogant and think themselves unbound by obligation or loyalty? Perhaps a punitive expedition is called for to remind them of their duties.
The boat slows, and out of the darkness there emerges the dim outline of a narrow inlet flanked by two large cliff faces. My slave girl deftly maneuvers the boat between the stone sentries and into a tight gorge. The deep blackness of night is replaced by close walls of towering rock that flicker in and out of sight in the dancing light of the blood lantern. The water is perilously shallow here; more than once the boat grinds over a sandbar lurking beneath the water's surface.
At the end of the gorge, the boat finally grounds upon the stony shore, and I dismount. I find myself now standing at the bottom of a large cliff upon which is carved a vast cyclopean symbol of the sort which one might find in those secret scrolls of sorcery locked away in the hidden vaults beneath the Palace Library. What the sigil means precisely I do not know, for those accounts are much too ancient to be read, but it is a welcome sign that the information which my slave girl uncovered was genuine.
In the dim light and dancing shadows, I approach the stone mark and draw my finger along its twisting form while uttering a spell of unlocking. Sure enough, the wall obeys my command and a great crack spreads out from the symbol and opens wide like a great yawning maw of blackness. I stride confidently into the dark portal, my slave girl following dutifully after with the blood lantern.
Beyond the doorway, a narrow stair leads downward into the cliff face. Here, as elsewhere in the kingdom of the night, darkness reigns, yet it is darkness of a different sort. Outside, the light from the blood lantern served to ward off the waiting void; here the shadows are aggressive. Ravenous. The walls of black crystal greedily gobble up the light; indeed they seem to draw closer in as we plunge deeper into the depths, like a stalking predator. Still, I press further onward; I have come too far to be denied.
Finally, after what seems like ages, the corridor opens upon a small chamber carved into the dark crystal. The room is circular with the same low ceiling as the rest of the corridor. A large brazier sits empty and cold in the center of the chamber, and before this stands a small seat. There are no exits to be seen save the one from which we entered. Slowly, I cross the chamber to the seat before the brazier, and place myself elegantly upon it. I have arrived at last.
I am busy smoothing a wrinkle out of my silk gown when all of a sudden the flame in the blood lantern splutters and dies, plunging the chamber into absolute blackness. An instant later, a cold blue flame bursts into being in the brazier before me. And in the twisting light of the fire, I see across the brazier from me a figure in a hooded black cloak.
"Long has it been since any mortal creature dared enter my domain," a voice wafts out from the darkness beneath the hood. This mysterious form speaks with a voice like none I have ever heard. It is soft like the whispering winds, yet tremendous and unyielding as the mighty mountains. Sprightly as a dancing flame, yet placid as mist over a glassy pond. It is a man's voice. It is a woman's voice. It is neither and yet both. Surely, this creature must be a jinn; one of those hidden beings born of magic itself.
"I have come seeking a great power," I announce, with all the dignity of a Queen.
"I have foreseen your coming, Daughter of Kings," the jinn says, "You would claim my gift."
"Then it is true?" I say, perhaps a little too eagerly, "There is a great magic here?"
"The greatest magic," the jinn says, "greater than all other magics in the universe."
Greater than all others? Then this is truly the magic that I was told of. And since no other soul has dared to claim it, then my wretched scheming sister certainly does not yes possess it. This bodes most well. "I must possess this magic. You shall give it to me."
The jinn makes a curious sound, like a gust of air at the top of a towering spire. What can this noise mean? A laugh? A sigh? A howl of rage? Who can say with a jinn? And yet, as I listen I can perceive words hidden within the sound...
You who seek to ascertain the power that I keep
Two prices must you name before my magic may be shown
The second price you first must pay and bitterly shall weep
The first you shall pay after willingly and yet unknown
By the Powers! But these jinn surely love their riddles! Small wonder it is that the common folk of Charn worship them as gods. Indeed, it is held that the union of a jinn and a mortal maiden was the spark that first brought magic into the Royal Lineage of Charn, thus laying the path to imperial greatness before our feet. Of course, the wise among the nobility know the truth of the universe; magic is not of the gods, merely a fount of power like any other, understood by sages and mystics, and properly fed with blood sacrifice. Still, these legends are a useful tool to keep the common rabble in line; an aura of divine favor is worth more than all the spears and shields ever forged.
For my own part, I have little patience for riddles. Naught but simple tricks are they; nonsense to confound the unworthy and keep them from the paths of glory. But who else is more deserving to walk the paths of glory than my own royal self? "Name your price, jinn," I say, ignoring the riddle, "and it shall be paid."
"Very well, Daughter of Kings," the jinn says, "If you would claim my gift, you must sacrifice that which is most precious to you."
'That which is most precious to me?'
I turn to regard my slave girl, standing by the chamber's entrance. Alas, I knew this day would come in the end. "Come to me, slave," I command gently, and she obeys. Thus begins her final act of loyalty. I raise my hand to touch the gem about my neck, steeling my resolve for what must now follow.
"I offer the life of my slave," I announce to the jinn. It grieves my heart to lose such a loyal thrall, but for the sake of power, it must be done. Mine is after all a high and lonely destiny.
"You did not listen, Daughter of Kings," the jinn says, "You must sacrifice that which is most precious to you."
"My slave is precious!" I proclaim, "Long has she served me with great skill and dedication. She is my closest confidante, and dearest bosom companion."
"There is something you hold more precious yet," the jinn says.
"You would presume to peer into my heart and grasp its inner workings?" I snap at the insolent little shade.
"I know what it is you hold most precious of all," the jinn says, "And if you desire my gift, you shall render it unto me." As the vision speaks, a black-gloved hand rises to point squarely at me.
...no, at the jewel about my neck!
"Absolutely out of the question!" I shriek at once, clutching at my precious gem, "Do you have any idea what this is?"
"I know that you prize it above all other things in this world," The jinn says.
"This jewel is my mark of precedence in the line of royal succession!" I protest, "If it is lost, I shall risk losing my claim to the Throne of Charn!"
"And if you would possess my magic," the jinn says heedless of my objections, "then you must surrender it."
"How dare you!" I burst forth from the seat in a whirlwind of rage, "You arrogant little sprite! You would insult me with this offer, and think to deny me a power that is rightfully mine?"
"You are more than welcome to depart without accepting my offer, Daughter of Kings," the jinn says, as calm and unmoved as a mountain in a storm.
"I'll see you suffer for this impudence!" I howl like a hurricane, "I'll visit upon you such tortures as you have never imagined in your darkest nightmares! I'll have you begging for the headsman's mercy by the time I'm through with you! Or perhaps I shall simply smite you into ashes where you stand!" And with a word of power, I draw up the currents of magic within me, and loose a spell of destruction upon the tricksome little wraith.
The magic dissipates as soon at it touches the hooded figure in black.
"You mortals are perplexing creatures," the jinn says. "You first seek me out, and then grow irate when I offer you precisely what you first sought." It mocks me! The apparition taunts me!
And yet, I can do nothing. In my rage, I have forgotten that torments of the flesh hold no dread for creatures of magic with no flesh to torment. I set myself back down on the seat before the brazier to contemplate this proffered bargain.
Giving up the jewel does not necessarily entail surrendering my claim to the throne. The Heart of the Scion is merely a token of my rightful place at the head of the line of succession; I have other means of bolstering my rightful claim, though they are less secure. I must move boldly and shrewdly, or my wretched sister shall snatch away through trickery that which is mine by right.
Then again, is it even necessary to claim this power? My position is stable enough at the moment, my royal inheritance more than secure. Is it truly wise to risk everything in this manner? Why even bother reaching for this new power only to expose myself to the caprices of espionage and courtly intrigue? Perhaps it would be safer to let this power slumber unawakened.
Preposterous! The only reason I even learned of this power at all was because my sister first sought after it. Who can say that she isn't planning to seize this power for herself? Even if my jewel is the only price that the jinn shall accept, still my sister may attempt to steal the jewel, and earn the power at my expense! I can think of no worse outcome than that I should lose both the jewel and the power! If nothing else, I must ensure that this magic is denied to my sister.
The path laid before me is clear though fraught with peril. Ah, but such is the fate of all who walk the ways of greatness. Peril and glory are rarely far apart.
"...Very well," I say at length, "Have your prize, jinn." I unclasp the gem from my throat and hurl it at the contemptuous sprite. A single black gloved hand snatches the jewel out of the air in mid-flight, and a shimmering tentacle of blue flame wraps around the jewel and pulls it into the fire. "The second price is paid," the jinn says.
The second price?
Before I can demand an answer, a mighty rumbling wells up from the bowels of the earth. As I look about, the walls about me begins to tremble and quake. Great cracks begin to crawl across the smooth dark crystal, like fractures in the surface of reality. I turn back to the jinn, but it has vanished, and the flame in the brazier is growing larger; soon the blue flames shall spill over the edges and fill the entire chamber.
"Princess!" My slave girl says urgently, "We must away at once!"
Without a moment's hesitation, I leap up from my seat before the overflowing brazier, gather a fistful of my skirts and flee the chamber with all haste. Up the stairs I dash, pursued by the swelling tremors and cracks in the walls. I dare not look backward, not even to see if my slave girl follows after; the blue flame lighting the way from behind drives me ever onward.
At last, I reach the mouth of the crystal cavern, and just as the mighty tremors reach their peak, I emerge into the hidden gorge where the boat still waits. Now safe, I turn back just in time to see my slave girl hurl herself through the portal and onto the stony shore just as a great tongue of blue fire bursts out into the sky. For a single moment, the sky seems to drown in light; an instant later, the collapsing cavern smothers the flame, and the world is plunged back into the indelible darkness of night.
I summon my light globe once again and take stock of the situation. The entrance to the jinn's grotto is entombed beneath a cascade of jagged boulders. Off to the side, my slave girl has picked herself up off the ground and is re-lighting the blood lantern. And at the water's edge, the boat sits blissfully unaware.
"What is to be done now, Princess?" my slave girl asks.
"Let us return to the Palace," I say, making my way back to the boat.
"Have we succeeded then?" my slave girl asks, "Have you learned something of the magic we sought?"
"Speak not to me of magic, slave" I snap as I take a seat at the stern, "This errand was a dead end."
My slave girl quickly joins me at the boat. She hangs the blood lantern at the prow and with a shove, the slender boat slips into the dark water once again. Down the gorge we float in silence, and out into the great river. Just as before, we encounter no other vessels plying the sullen waters, and it is just as well, for in my rage I might just lash out with my sorceries and plunge any wretched travelers into the depths. And who could blame me? I have been cheated most cruelly! My birthright stolen away, and naught to show for it but a single word.
Only now do I truly notice it. A word I have never heard spoken before, tucked away in the recesses of my memory like a half-forgotten gemstone at the bottom of a jewelry box. It is a word most peculiar, wrought of many unfamiliar sounds packed into strange syllables, and not of any language which is known to me. Curiously, I open my mouth to give voice to this long-forgotten utterance...
All of a moment, I am seized by a terrible dread! So much of the nature of this word is still alien to me, and yet I do know that if it is spoken, then all the universe shall be at once laid to waste; every living in the world shall be slain by the power of the word, save the one who first gave it breath. This then is the gift of the jinn. I carry within my bosom the power to destroy everything.
What a waste!
True, the jinn promised me a power greater than any other, and what power could be greater than the power to completely unmake all that is and shall ever be. But with no means of restraining the destruction, how can I ever use it? Could I not limit the destruction only to those who opposed me? Or merely to one rebellious city-state? With no way to limit this power in its application, I must rely upon politics to make any use of it. The greatest manifestation of power in all the universe has become naught but an artless cudgel.
Perhaps this word might prove a gateway to further power? If I were to analyze the components of the word, or compare them to the ancient manuscripts of power, it may yet be possible to extrapolate a means of limiting the scope of the devastation. And yet, how would I even write the word? Many of its component sounds have no letters to represent themselves. And of course, I would need to conduct this research on my own; this is a power too great to entrust to scholars and sages. The research would surely consume my every waking thought, with nary a moment left to consider the machinations of my confounded sister.
Could it be that this was her intention all along? Could my sister possibly have known that I would have to sacrifice the Heart of the Scion in order to claim the word? And did she let her slave pass that information along as though it were some dread secret? A conspiracy? Anger thunders through my soul at the very thought! Have I been outfoxed at last by that wretched sister of mine? Perhaps I shall loose the power of the word upon her if only to confound whatever sordid scheme she is presently concocting.
A shiver in the boat stirs me from my contemplation, and I look about to see that we have returned to the wharf in the dungeons once again. My slave girl already stands beside the boat with the blood lantern in hand. I have passed the entire journey fretting and fuming over things that are beyond my control. After taking a moment to collect my scattered dignity, I rise from the boat and step onto the stone wharf. Somehow, the ground beneath my feet seems less stable than it did before. Indeed, all things are now less stable than they were.
"Princess?" My slave girl asks, "Is something amiss?"
I look at the girl standing before me in the flickering lantern light. I've never taken the time to notice, but she and I are of an age with one another. Out of all my servants and chattels, she alone has my complete trust. In a way, she is the only steady point of light in my world that is now plunged into shifting shadows.
"Are we... friends?"
The girl appears stunned by the question at first. But soon, a compassionate smile dawns across her face. "Oh yes! Of course! You said as much in the lair of the jinn; I am your closest confidante, and dearest bosom companion. And you can be certain that I hold you in equal regard."
"Come here," I say with gentle warmth on my voice.
The girl sets the lantern down on the stone and walks toward me, the soft padding of her feet echoing through the tight stone chamber. I raise a hand to caress her face as she comes to me, and she smiles like the rising of the sun on a new day. Then, with a single swift motion, my hand clamps down hard upon the back of her neck, and I drop to my knees to force her head under the water's surface.
How dare she! How dare this slave, this insect, this mote of dust beneath my shoe! How dare she consider herself equal to her mistress! I am Jadis, Crown Princess of Charn, and soon I shall be mistress of all the world and all creatures that move and breathe upon it! And by all the powers, this impudent creature shall know her place! A slave's place!
The slave struggles for a minute or so, but my grip is forged of iron and shall not yield. Soon, a final shudder wracks her body, and she falls limp, overcome at last. I give her body a final shove and she slides into the murky depths. Sink now, and may the dark waters swiftly bear your wretched soul down into the abyss.
As I stand back up and brush the dust from my skirt, I consider what the jinn said. If my jewel was the second price, then what was the first? The riddle said I would pay the first after the second, but where is the sense in that? It also said that I would pay it willingly and yet not know it... perhaps it was a metaphysical price of some sort? Ah, but look at me trying to find some hidden meaning in senseless riddles. What utter foolishness. What is done is done and must be dealt with as such.
I snatch up the blood lantern and make my way back through the dungeons and up the stairs to the palace corridors. Darkness still reigns throughout the Palace, and I meet no other souls as I silently wend my way back as I first came. Finally, after all the misery and catastrophe that has transpired this night, I find myself once again in the safety of my bedchamber. I set the blood lantern atop a nightstand and sit on the edge of my bed.
And then, I begin to speak the word. Just one syllable. Then another. And then another; each one a step closer to ultimate destruction.
As I near that final fatal sound, I feel a tremendous power rising within me. It is not a thing of magic; I know well the sprightly sparkings of the currents of magic, but this is like no magic I have ever felt. No, this is something far deeper; a menacing crescendo of emptiness and dread, a monstrous abomination slumbering at the edge of reality itself, awaiting the moment when someone shall awaken its wrath.
My lips stop moving. Only one more syllable remains. One last piece of that dreadful puzzle. I savor the silence, daring myself to break it for the final time. The universe seems to hold its breath. Horror and awe fill the air like sweet incense; looming like the headsman's axe, poised to strike away all that is and shall ever be. Life and death, existence and oblivion dancing together on the edge of a knife.
I have never felt more alive than this very moment.
I blow out the blood lantern, and the darkness rushes in.