The Zenith Lord
The presence hung near the ceiling and watched the lone occupant of an immense bed encased by canopy and drapes tied back at the four bedposts. He had surveyed the space earlier, a room large for a bedchamber in the grandest of keeps with side rooms for clothes and refreshment. A suite made for exhibition by the vain and pretentious, yet rarely seen. Richly appointed furniture with gold inlay, a walk-in fireplace, built-in bookcases filled to overflowing, overstuffed plush chairs and large table formed a study area and fulfilled its arrogant purpose. The few candles that burned increased its illusion of size.
The bed swallowed Eric, High Lord Mountglen's towering thin frame except for overly long feet that made peaks out of the bedcloths. Mountglen settled into large pillows waiting for sleep and his musings drifted to the coach ride earlier that day. He remembered the children waving from a field. The children always waved. He wondered why; he never waved back. "The innocence of children, was I ever that innocent?"
No, his memory did not journey that far. "My spirit belongs to Dark's Source with all the pain and horror that entails, if indeed it exists." He wished no Dark One or his Source existed. Mountglen's long slender fingers automatically grasped the Dark Stone hanging from his neck by a gold chain. Its power began to relax him and a wave of pleasure seeped through him until it became ecstasy, then ecstasy approached pain in the degree of its manifestation, pulling him into sleep and dreams of pleasure.
The dream started normally enough, except his awareness knew it for a dream and that sent fear through his mind; he had never before experienced the phenomenon. He floated in a void of dark shadows that churned in winnowing currents around him. A single idea surged through his consciousness. "You belong to the Dark One and to me!"
Mountglen sat up in bed, awake and shaking with a burning sensation on his chest. He pulled the Dark Stone from his sleepcloth, made barely visible by the dim light and clutched it for comfort. His hand burned with its unusual heat.
Quickly, darkness returned to his senses and a disembodied voice filled his mind. "Your use of the Dark Stone called me. You have used the Dark Stone to pleasure yourself and to provide your success in many things."
Mountglen's words, a barely audible, ragged whisper, came slowly. "I am Eric, High Lord Mountglen. I have not summoned anyone!" Fear surged through him.
The swirling shadows and currents coalesced into a tall dark figure; the head under a cowl pulled in the little surrounding light and dissolved it into the blackness of its persona. Shadure's presence gave the room the same feeling of Mountglen's dream: a void. Shadure's deep rumbling voice hissed with disdain that now sounded throughout the room. "High Lord? You are nothing without the Dark Stone! The Stone's influence gave you capabilities and you have prospered."
Mountglen's rail projected equal disdain; "I am ruler of Mountglen, descendent of the Heroes of the Seven Realms and I know you not!" The dark robe's long sleeve barely stirred; a searing pain gripped Mountglen's arm, traveled slowly through his chest to his limbs and then exploded in his head. His back arched in spasm. He fought to scream; no sound came and he had never felt such agony. His mouth gaped and he tried to shriek without success. The pain vanished and left him gasping for breath. He slumped backward against the pillows, his body frozen in place and his strength gone.
Mountglen cringed and pushed his body farther backward into the mountain of pillows. Words came to his mind and ears at the same time that created a disturbing feeling of power. "You hold the Dark Stone; you used its power to reap pain and ruin on your adversaries and you gained great benefit from that use. You murmured your desires to the Dark Stone and your avarice became fulfilled. I, too, heard your pathetic pleadings.
"I control many forces in the void and have considerable power in your world. I know you for the man you are through your dreams and desires. Your heart is as black as the Dark Stone you wear. You have murdered, raped, thieved and borne false witness to achieve your own ends. You want what is not yours: the lands, titles, power and wealth of your nephew, the Zenith Lord." The voices of mind and hearing became softer but even more menacing. "You summoned me through the Dark Stone's use as if you had called my name! Did you think your deeds went without consequence? Your spirit belongs to Dark's Source and to me!"
Mountglen's mind raced. "How could this thing cause pain so great? Pain and ruin…." Agony spread through his body again and jerked him upright. He threw his arms up protectively as a defense against the indefensible and pleaded. "Please, no more pain; tell me what you desire." The pain left him with a soreness that racked his body. Mountglen's color faded from its normal whiteness into pallor. "Desire? I desire your service to the Dark One and to me. I have your spirit for all time. What else is there?" Mountglen whimpered as the eerie voice continued. "What more can you offer except service? Your hate and loathing reached me through the Dark Stone and I have felt it for a long time. The Dark Stone's power is increasing and now I am able to come to you and make myself known."
Mountglen's priorities fell into order. His voice became soft, calculating. "You wish to make yourself known to me?"
"Do you acknowledge that your spirit belongs to the Dark One and me?"
Mountglen yielded a low moan of finality from Shadure's words. His mind shook off the words generated in his head and a single revelation took hold. "This is a negotiation!" Mountglen's voice sounded flat. "Yes."
"What do you know about the Dark Stone you wear?"
Mountglen forced confidence into his voice that he did not feel. "My father gave it to me. It has brought me pleasure."
Shadure roared, "It has brought you much more than pleasure. It has given you the intuitive feelings that have made you successful in all your dealings."
Mountglen rebelled at the though that his successes were not truly his own, but dared not interrupt.
"Now, through the Dark Stone and through me, you may earn greater rewards. It will require much service to the Dark One and to me. Success and failure will provide appropriate rewards beyond your petty thinking. You will be the Zenith Lord in your world and hold even more power in the void when you journey to me. It is your choice. You will not have the Dark Stone for your comfort if you make the wrong choice. Do you remember when you last gave up the Stone?"
Mountglen knew his defeat. He could no longer live without the Dark Stone's pleasures. He had tried, once. His abject sigh accompanied his cluttered thoughts. "How can this Stone do so much?" Mountglen opened his hand and looked at his object of ruin. "It is the same since coming into my keeping."
"No!" The simulacrum shimmered beside Mountglen's bed. "Fool, do you think the Stone physically changes while its power grows. Now, the Dark Stone you wear is strong enough for me to come into your world that I may help you obtain your dreams."
Mountglen's voice grew incredulous. "What more is your price? What is it you want in return?"
"I already have your spirit; it belongs to Dark's Source and will be mine to use in the void." Mountglen struggled to keep from shouting obscenities. "I can see into your world through the Dark Stone until that time. I will feed on the power of those you dispatch who don't belong to Light's Source. That and your soul are payments enough. I require nothing if you refuse my offer; the joy of your eternal pain will be mine soon enough. Your refusal means nothing to you if a future without the Dark Stone and your coming torment contents you. Believe me; the pain you felt is nothing more than a pinprick in the void."
Shadure's voice changed to hold all the womanly enchantments in Mountglen's licentious dreams. "You need not feel any pain. You may feel great pleasure. It is your choice."
Mountglen's voice gained bravado. "When will I receive what you promise?" Mountglen might have seen a smile form within the cowl if he knew how to channel the Dark Stone's power.
"You must be patient. There are few with the power I have obtained under my Master. My supremacy will increase over time as yours will through me." The black form floated to the end of the bed and extended itself to fill the space from the top of the mattress to the canopy, ten feet upward. "First you must freely give me your oath. Your afterlife belongs to the Dark One. Service to the Dark One through me is your only chance of a reward in the void. Fail and you will know torment you never imagined in both worlds. Your only hope is through me." The form reduced itself to Mountglen's dimensions and floated over him at an angle: three feet away from his head and the hem of his cloak no more than an inch from the bedcloths over his feet. Shadure's words ceased their harshness and flowed like oily scum across a fetid pond and the audible tones purred softly. "You may call me Shadure. Let my name fill your mind, think only of me. I will hear and come to you. I won't come again to make this offer. You must decide quickly."
"You expect me to decide…." The Stone vanished from its gold frame. Dull aches came from Mountglen's weight bearing joints; he could not see clearly and his head throbbed. Loneliness, despair and grief filled him while his mind sunk into a black pool of horror. His breaths became short and shallow and his chest felt stabs of fire. "Is this to be my life without the Dark Stone?" Mountglen's mind settled on one imperative. "Rationalizations no longer matter!"
Mountglen had resigned himself long ago with his first contracted murder that in an afterlife he belonged to the Dark One. Payment for his deeds was irreversible if the Dark One existed, or so he had believed, now, perhaps not. "You have my oath."
Shadure's form shimmered with satisfaction. "And, you have mine. I will aid you in your desires and I am pleased you have joined with me in this effort to insure our mutual goals."
Shadure's voice exuded command. "There is something you must do quickly." Enmity bathed the tones of Shadure's words in Mountglen's mind and the sound that eerily floated to him. "Soon, there will be another Greatstone born. You must stop this birth for both our interests. This child will be the undisputed heir to the Dais. You must do as I order if you ever wish to have the Seven Realms for yourself. You have agents in Stonefire. Use them for this. There must be no link to you.
"It may do great harm if my existence is known before we are ready. Remember the price of my displeasure. Remember also, the sensual pleasure I bring you through the Dark Stone and the great riches and power you have and will gain from fulfilling service to the Dark One and to me."
The voice slid to a throaty purr that hinted at a sneer. "You are a man of action; don't call me for unimportant reasons. Grasp the Stone when you need me and call the void with your mind. I will come."
Mountglen started from the sudden emptiness he felt. Shadure relinquished his mind; the Dark Stone's mild heat surrounded by its frame again warmed his hand and the maladies of age receded to nothingness.
Mountglen sat up in bed, wide eyed and sweating. His sleepcloth clung to his damp, bony chest. He remembered the dream vividly and wondered; could it be other than a dream? Terrible aches coursed throughout his body, the event's only evidence.
Shadure smiled, hidden from Mountglen's view by his lack of understanding regarding the forces around him. Forces wrapped into the Dark Stone that Shadure had not disclosed.
Mountglen whispered aloud, "Shadure is right; it will complicate the fulfillment of my desires if that fool, the great Jarod Greatstone, has a brat." Mountglen leaned against his pillows. "I'd rather be the tormentor than the tormented in the afterlife."
Mountglen's question came from a lifetime of deceit. Could it have been only a dream? Sharp pain soared through his arm before the query completely formed, not as severe as before, but enough for him to cry out and gasp for air. Blackness swirled before him. He felt its presence in front of his face and cringed with an involuntary obeisance. Pain drained from his arm while he heard a sinister laugh in his mind.
The light knock at his door caused a frown. "Enter."
A guard ventured cautiously into the room. "High Lord, I passed by and heard a cry. Is something wrong?"
Mountglen's gelid stare froze the guard in place. Mountglen strained to force words out, "No trouble. Send Thord to me at once." The guard bowed himself from the room, closed the door; he looked relieved.
Within minutes, the bedchamber door opened. Mountglen watched Thord glide across the room. How can someone so large glide with such stealth and grace? Thord's scars over heavily muscled arms, face and many more hidden beneath his leathers, added to his fierce countenance. The cruelest scar formed at the corner of his mouth and ended at his right ear. His eyes held the promise of pain to anyone foolish enough to challenge him.
Thord's deep grating voice reverberated around the room. "High Lord?"
Mountglen's throat suffered from his unuttered screams as if real. His vocal cords felt like they might break with tension and his first few words came out sounding like a cock's spur against slate. "Thord, I have an important task for you to fulfill." Mountglen arose from the bed and walked pass the table to the bookshelves behind. "Light candles for the table." Thord continued without a change of expression or comment to do his master's bidding. Mountglen walked slower than usual with a hint of pain produced by every step. He selected a book quickly and returned to the table where Thord lounged to the right of Mountglen's chair.
Mountglen carefully opened the book that revealed a hidden compartment. He removed its contents, a small bottle with cork sealed in wax that Thord's face grimaced in recognition. His eyes stared with interest and the left side of his mouth curled in a gruesome smile; he leaned forward with new alertness.
* 2 *
Sheer draperies fell in soft folds around the bed. Candles and fireplace cast flickering lights that lit the interior in a fantasy of light. Golden flecks in radiant emerald eyes caught the light. Dark auburn hair spread over the pillows behind her and sweat glistened on her nude body. "You are wonderful." Her voice softened to a moan.
Jarod Greatstone, Zenith Lord of the Seven Realms, cupped his wife's chin and then slowly let his fingers flow downward. Strong fingers tread lightly over her abdomen and around to the small of her back, leaving a shiver of delight. He kissed her gently while they disentangled themselves. Jarod lay on his back beside her. Their vigorous lovemaking over, their afterglow enveloped them. Jarod's strong voice filled with wonder. "How long have you known?"
Maress rolled on her side, facing him. "You might have known a few weeks earlier. I could have sent a message, but telling you in person, seeing the joy in your face is something that I will always remember and treasure."
She had assured him that Mother Mavis gave her a thorough examination and that all had been fine. He asked her all the questions the Mother said he would and she took great delight in answering them. "I sent a message to mother and father. The babe will be born in the spring and I'm sure they will want to be here."
Jarod's face grew pensive. "I can hurry the inspections only so much. I can be here for a time before the birth and then continue them, or, I can possibly get them completed and be here in time for the birth."
Maress cut off his next statement with a look. "My darling, I have considered long on this. I prefer that you complete your travels and be here for the birth and afterwards, for a few months if it can be arranged. The Mother tells me that it's more important to be here afterwards than before." Her playful smile rewarded with a loving nudge of his lips to her nipples. "Can the realms do without you for a few months?"
He chuckled. "The realms will have to be content with my absence for the next few years. When I complete these inspections, I will be through with travel for some time. The High Lords can come to me, as it should be." Jarod said the last with a smile and a glint in his eye. They knew that certain trips would always be required in the future.
"Can we have a banquet to announce our news?"
"We can, if you don't embarrass me!"
"Embarrass you!" Maress sputtered. "When have I ever embarrassed you?"
"Oh, I seem to remember a banquet with soft music and light conversation. A soft, caressing, hand lay gently on my thigh and caused what you usually did when you want to see me melt and stiffen at the same time." Maress gave a mockingly shocked gasp while Jarod continued. "You timed it to the exact moment that father came into the room. Then, as we rose, you took my napkin! I saw several faces flush crimson and after sitting, the bard sang of nothing but racing stallions for an hour!"
Maress giggled. "Now, perhaps I will see you appear a little pink when I announce that you will deliver several babes in a few months!" "You…you wouldn't…would you?" The look she gave Jarod accomplished what she intended and he pulled her to him. The gentle kiss bathed her in bliss.
"No, my dear, I guess I won't."
Jarod rose and pulled the sheer drapery open before walking to extinguish the candles. Maress watched the light play against rippling muscles while he strode across the room. Her musings exuded happiness. Oh, my dear Jarod, I don't think I could ever tell you the depth of my love for you. I could never find the words to express it. You are my life; you give my spirit breath to live. My ladies-in-waiting tell me I light up the room at the sound of your voice and I suppose I do. I never dreamt that I could be this happy.
Jarod walked toward the bed with only the light from the fireplace. Maress pulled the feather comforter over her and held its corner up for Jarod to slide in beside her. She marveled again at the muscles that felt like warm, yielding marble, next to her.