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A battle is ending in the heart of a black wood. From the surrounding treetops it is all oddly peaceful: the late moonlight, the curve of the river, the grassy clearing on its banks, the ruined tower like a broken bottleneck thrust against the sky. No shouts from the combatants, no clashing of steel. One can even hear the crows across the water, rejoicing in the almost-dawn.
But distance deceives. A little closer, and we find the grass is scorched, the river furious, the stairs of the ruined tower slick with blood. And at the foot of the stairs a dozen figures crouch: all wounded, all contemplating death; in a minute’s time they will be slain by sorcery. They bend low, squeeze tightly together. They are surrounded by a ring-shaped pit, and the inner edge of the pit is crumbling toward their feet.
Above their heads shimmers a dull halo, resembling a mist or cloud of insects. It is neither; it is the whirling of enchanted blades. They have cut someone already; a fine haze of blood thickens the air. The blades, as may be expected, are descending. The ring-shaped pit bristles with spikes.
Crude horrors, these; but so is the confluence of powers that has willed them into being. High on the tower wall stands a mage: skeletal, staring, hideous at a glance. He is gripping the hair of another, a ragged beast of a man, and gesturing at the unfortunates below. The ragged man is drooling, his gaze empty of all comprehension. Tight to his chest he holds a little sphere of darkness, so black it devours the moonlight, so black it troubles the eye.
Movement, suddenly: a third figure has crawled up from behind. A youth, dripping wet, bleeding, his look of fury rivaling the mage’s own. Unseen, he staggers closer, holding what can only be a blackjack. With a spasm of regret he strikes down the ragged man. There is a crack of breaking bone.
The whirling blades vanish, and the pit. The ragged man falls dead, and the sphere slips from his grasp. Among the crouching figures, a young woman closes her hand upon a sword-hilt. Above, the sphere of darkness is rolling toward the wall’s sheer edge. The mage lunges, catches the sphere at the last instant, and with it clutched in both hands, he falls. Before he is halfway to the ground the world’s future takes shape.
The touch of the sphere is death, even to one as powerful as this. Death consumes him, hands to wrists to elbows. Thirty feet from the ground his arms are dead. And yet he smiles. He is speaking an incantation. Beside the tower, the surface of the river convulses, and something thin and dark leaps out of it, skyward. The mage tries for a glimpse, but at that instant the young woman strikes with rare perfection. Her blade sings. The body lands headless on the earth.
The dark splinter, however, continues its ascent, like a fish that leaps and forgets to fall. Up through mist and cloud it stabs, above the paths of hawks and falcons, above the spirit-highways of the murths, until at last it touches the shores of that greater ocean, the void from whence we came. But no farther: it has work to do in Alifros, tireless work.
Northward it passes, turning and tumbling like a shard of glass, over the mountains, the dew-damp woods, the lowlands where villagers are waking, muttering, hitching oxen to the plow. By the time it reaches the ocean it has doubled in size.