Blackthorn was glad he had learned the language of daemons. Had he not spoken in time, the one before him might well have snapped off his head.

Instead the nobleman stood with crossed arms, staring up at the monster's face. The daemon was twice his height and must have weighed more than three horses. Its hands were larger than Blackthorn's head. Its claws were razor-edged shingles. And it was repugnant. Rotting gore and excrement smeared its pocked skin and clotted in the creases of its wings, dropping on the floor in clumps when it moved. Its huge jaw hung slack, emitting a visible miasma that slunk through the air like putrid fog. Its fangs were splotched with bilious colors.

And its voice rang as deep and sonorous as a flawless iron bell.

"Perhaps we can make a deal," it said, the walls resonating with its purity of sound. The words arrived on a putrescent breath.

Blackthorn wrinkled his nose. "I shouldn't," he answered, "but at the moment I have no choice. Tell me what I must do."

"Come closer."

To accommodate the bulk of the monster, the corridor had a very high ceiling. A stairway led upward at one end of the short hallway; at the other end was a single door with the daemon in front of it. Shadows danced to the flicker of torchlight. The unadorned stone walls might have seemed out of place in the opulent Castle Britannia, except that few ever traveled this deep under the palace. This was the domain of Nystul, the ancient court wizard. He placed here only what embellishments he required -- sorcerous runes carved in the door and a magic circle inscribed around the daemon.

Blackthorn stepped closer, just outside the circle. He was careful to avoid the monster's strewn droppings with his neatly polished boots.

The daemon scratched its horned face. Its claws dragged through smudges of filth. "Sadly I cannot allow you through this door. I have been bound by Nystul to admit only two humans, himself and Lord British. If you enter my circle I am compelled to kill you. And yet..."

Blackthorn lifted an eyebrow.

"... and yet a wizard of your skill, Lord Blackthorn, could set me free."

The nobleman shook his head. "I can't do that. But I can grant you temporary freedom."

The daemon snorted messily. "I am a lord in the underworlds. Do not insult me with miserly offers."

"I can open the side of the circle that faces the door. You may not leave, but you can enter the door with me. You know what's in that room."

The monster narrowed its eyes. They glowed like a bright light shining through flesh. "You would expose the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom to a daemon?"

"I don't care one whit if you see the Codex. If I don't get through that door, both your schemes and mine will be irrelevant. If we both go through, you'll have enough power to free yourself and I'll have enough power to defend myself against you." He smiled. "Done?"

"Done." It moved aside. Its enormous mass stirred up the foul air. "Open it."

Blackthorn stepped into the circle. He could hear the daemon's quickened heartbeat, a grotesque sound in its muscular torso. The sorcerer examined the runes circumscribing the magic ring. "Nystul is thorough," he observed, "but too mechanical. Give me a moment." He knelt and traced his fingers over the circle. The daemon watched eagerly, slavering loops of mucus.

Then Blackthorn whirled on his knee and jabbed his hand at the monster. His arm seemed to extend beyond its length, propelling into the daemon's gigantic chest as if into feculent sludge. The monster roared. One of its shield-sized hands swept toward the sorcerer, who ducked with scant inches of margin. Blackthorn yanked his hand free. Something foul and serpentine squirmed in his grip.

With practiced cadence he chanted a spell. On his belt opened a small pouch like a puckered mouth. A whirlwind erupted from it, capturing the squirming shape and sucking it inside. Blackthorn quickly pulled the string, drawing the pouch closed.

The daemon's unclean body flopped to the ground, shuddering on the stone. The pouch bucked and writhed.

The nobleman took a moment to compose himself. I timed that badly, he thought, wiping his brow. It nearly cleaned my head off my shoulders.

You lied to it, said another voice in his head.

Blackthorn chuckled. Of course I did, Gavrielle. It would have killed me at the first chance. Bartering with daemons is a duel of lies. Anyway, we need to hurry. I'll have to break rapport with you for a bit.

So you're really going through with this?

No choice, my lady. He sat on the floor beside the daemon's motionless body. His eyes closed as he murmured. An instant later, the daemon's eyes popped open.

By all that's holy, thought Blackthorn, this defiles my soul! Wearing the daemon's body, he rose from the floor. He looked away from the smudges he left behind. Let's do this quickly. I can't abide this for long!

Lady Gavrielle had guessed correctly. Since Nystul used the daemon's power in some of his spells, its body was immune to the strictest of the enchantments that protected the spell chamber. Blackthorn disabled the remaining protections himself. The daemon's soul was bound inside the circle, but its flesh was not, and so the sorcerer was able to walk freely. He pushed open the door and squeezed his filthy bulk inside.

The chamber was a museum of priceless artifacts. Endless shelves were heavy with stones, weapons, jewelry and stacked documents. Blackthorn recognized most of them. Many had been in his possession at one time. Of course the truly potent magic of Britannia tended to wind up in the hands of Lord British, and thence in the care of Nystul. The old wizard scrutinized each artifact with the hunger of a rat in a silo.

I see the Codex, he thought to Gavrielle. Trust in my strength. An image of the eldritch tome floated in a wide, blue lens mounted on a marble pedestal. The lens provided a window to the Great Stygian Abyss, where the book actually resided. The open pages of the Codex were inviting, buoyant on some draft within the gloomy confines of its underground sanctum. The script was unlike anything Blackthorn had ever seen. It defied shape as it oozed over the browning parchment in complex, delicate patterns. A moment passed before he could focus his otherworldly eyesight on the letters. When he did, he saw their tremendous power.

Here were the formulas to embody a man's dreams. With these spells Blackthorn could transform Britannia. He could rid the world of evil. No longer would dangerous beasts roam the wilds between cities. No longer would the roads fall prey to deluded cowards who rob the innocent. No longer would armies march into senseless wars. No longer would the people need Lord British's stifling Virtues. The Codex was the power he had always desired, to forge the world that he wanted to see.

Blackthorn grinned and reached out to take the lens from its pedestal. He saw that his hands were a daemon's. He grinned with a daemon's fangs. He clenched his teeth and fists, growling. No. It must be a lie. It's luring me, just as it's lured British and Nystul. I have to stay focused on my purpose here.

Are you okay? asked Gavrielle from far away.

I am. He took a deep breath. Is Exedur with you?

Yes, chained and shackled. You could have told the guards to clean him up, though. He stinks like the dungeon.

I have no sympathy for you. Tell him I'm about to start looking for the spell. I'm counting on his senses to warn me of any danger.

What makes you think he can be trusted?

Because we're both working toward the same goal. Remind him of that. And tell the guards to give him fresh food and a hot bath when we're finished. Dammit!


Your grandfather's daemon has no control over its ... emissions.

Exedur is ready to start, my lord, when you are.

Scanning through the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom taxed Blackthorn's willpower. He found its pages turned with a simple thought. With every page he felt the tug of raw, ancient secrets. He maintained his composure by limiting his search to titles and side notes, though the scholar in him wept for every verse of forbidden knowledge he passed over.

Blackthorn, stop!

He closed his daemon's eyes. What is it?

Exedur just had some kind of spasm. He says ... he says the next page contains the spell you're looking for.

I see. He flipped the page. Without another message to his distant companion, he began to read the Codex.

The taste of oily metal filled his mouth. He stood under a roiling sky overlooking a freakish landscape, as if giants had riveted armor on a thousand castles and then slowly let them decay. A rust-colored wind tumbled over the buildings. Something darted across the sky on an archway of smoke, and was gone. A river of muck drifted lazily. Through this outlandish scene marched a long procession of men, or things shaped like men, decked in hooded robes of black and gray and carrying banners on tall poles. The banners were crowded with symbols or writing he did not recognize, or like. Nor did he like the strange manner in which the robed figures moved with absolute synchrony. Not like a trained army. More like automatons.

Before them the men drove a group of prisoners. They were naked and stumbling. From this distance Blackthorn could swear not an inch of their skin was unscarred, yet they did not yield to the spears and poles that shoved them along the angular road. Even the children among them resisted. They bled for their bravery.

The procession was horribly quiet. In herding the prisoners the hooded figures were emotionless, showing no passion or pleasure.

But Blackthorn did. Blackthorn felt pleasure.

He looked down at himself, to find he was being devoured. A grotesque monster of metal was swallowing him in its jagged maw. The beast was almost shapeless, a churning mass of iron and steel cogs held together by leather and wood, expelling smoke and steam from its bizarre, exposed innards. It had already consumed more than half his body. He raised his hand to strike it.

He screamed. It was the monster's metal hand he had raised.

He was floating above the hellish landscape, chained to a floating iron building.

The hooded men chanted his name in cold, mechanical tones.

Boiling oil flowed through his veins.


That wasn't the voice of the hooded automatons.

Blackthorn! Answer me!

He shouted his own name back at the voice, then jerked himself away from the Codex. His unwieldy bulk smashed across shelves of irreplaceable treasures, but right then he would have sacrificed every artifact in Britannia for a breath of clean air. He leaned against the wall, gasping. When he saw the filthy shape of the daemon's body, he almost shed tears.

Blackthorn! What's happening, dammit?

He clawed his own face to refocus his concentration. Fear not, Lady, he thought to Gavrielle. I'm... unharmed.

Exedur collapsed right when you screamed! He said he saw your future just as you did. What did you see? What future?

Blackthorn raked his talons down the wall of the spell chamber, chewing inch-deep grooves in the granite. That's not my future, he thought, more to himself than to the sorceress. That's not my future. I'll die first.

"Sustugriel!" The shout was in an unexpected, but familiar voice. Blackthorn turned to see the old wizard Nystul stepping into the room through a tall mirror. He was swathed in a heavy cloak, his long white beard tousled by a cold wind. "Sustugriel, you feckless hound, you should know better than to try slipping past me!" The wizard swirled his arms in a precision gesture, spitting the choppy words of a spell. A bundle of crackling light hurtled at Blackthorn and smashed against his gigantic body. As the spell fizzled away, he glared at Nystul through a haze of smoke.

In the daemon's achingly pure voice he growled, "I'm not Sustugriel." With a snort he charged the old man. Nystul cried out as Blackthorn clamped a giant fist around his throat and pounded him against the wall. More priceless treasures spilled onto the floor. "I should kill you for what you're planning!"

Blackthorn, stop it! shrieked Gavrielle in his head. Don't hurt him! He's my grandfather!

Blackthorn did not hear her pleas. With a howl he flung the wizard across the spell chamber. Nystul crashed into the marble stand holding the Vortex Lens. The crystal disk clattered into a corner. The wizard crumpled, trying to shake off the impact. Blackthorn rushed at him again. The daemon's hands sparked and flared an instant before they could grab the old man. Blackthorn stumbled back, repelled by Nystul's impromptu shield.

"Who the devil are you?" coughed Nystul. With a lightning-fast motion he described a sigil in the air. Bands of shimmering light slithered around Blackthorn's hellish body, pinning his arms and wings. The nobleman forced out a spell of his own. The bands of light scintillated through a rainbow of colors as Blackthorn exerted the daemon's mighty strength, now enhanced; and with a crack and a flash they burst and vanished.

Nystul was on his feet and casting another spell. This time Blackthorn was ready. He started his own spell with well-honed reflexes, only to find that the daemon's hands were not up to the delicate task of Britannian sorcery. With wide eyes he tumbled to one side to dodge a spear of lightning that streaked at him. The bolt caught his wings and lashed him with pain. In frustration he vomited a column of hellfire at Nystul, but it deflected off some invisible barrier.

"Whoever you are," snarled the white-maned wizard, "give me back my daemon!" Blackthorn knew what was coming and could only roar in response. Nystul raised his hands and the room came to life, animated by a fierce wind. The wizard's voice boomed. Blackthorn did not resist as he was roughly expelled from the monster's body. When the maelstrom settled, the daemon again lay in a motionless pile.

The door to the hallway creaked open.

Blackthorn, in his own body, stood in a flickering halo of torchlight. His face was an ominous shadow, but Nytsul recognized him at once.

"By the Virtues, Lord Blackthorn, what do you think you're doing?"

"I'm stopping this madness. By whatever means I have to, I'm stopping it."

"You're moving your carcass out of my spell chamber," grumbled the old man, his long, snowy hair tangled across his face. His hands began to glow. "That's what you're doing."

Abruptly a fierce glare cleaved through the air. Both men recoiled, shielding their faces. When the light vanished, a tall figure stood in the center of the disheveled room.

"Gentlemen," said Lord British in an angry voice, "I think the three of us should sit down and talk."

"You're in the wrong, Blackthorn!" snapped British at his friend. "This time you've gone too far." Nystul grunted agreement. The trio stood at the end of a long dining hall, before an ember-dappled hearth. The rest of the lavish hall was mottled in shadow.

"I'm in the wrong?" The nobleman pointed at Lord British. "Have you seen the future you're working to create? It's an abomination!"

"Irrelevant!" Nystul stormed between them. "My lord, Blackthorn broke into my spell chamber, tampered with the Codex and assaulted me! He must answer for that."

Blackthorn pushed his face close to the old wizard's. "Yes, it's plain to me now why you keep your plans secret. Nystul, your ambitions will endanger the entire world. Are you blind to the disaster you're conjuring?"

The old wizard threw up his hands. "The famous Lord Blackthorn berates me for ambition!"

"Blackthorn, don't patronize me," grumbled British. "You want to paint me as a dupe of Nystul's enterprises, but you're wrong. I've been working toward this goal for years. You know that full well."

"Yes, and I've been telling you for years that it's a fool's dream. You can't rejoin the shards. You want your Virtues to act like some kind of markers, lining up all the worlds in a neat row. But it can't work, British. I don't care what the Time Lord or anyone else says. The world is a chaotic place. The shards will be very different now. Each of those shadow worlds possesses its own history, its own people. Do their lives mean nothing? To force these worlds together not only invites catastrophe, its genocide."

British took a seat in a high-backed chair and rubbed his temple. "We've had this argument dozens of times, my friend. We've agreed to disagree."

"But I can't agree to disagree. Not if you're actually going to undertake this madness." Blackthorn crouched before his friend. "British, please listen to me. This doesn't have to be a battle. The plain truth is, I've seen this future of yours, and my place in it. It's terrifying. I won't accept that fate. I can't fathom how you can, either."

"We must see different futures. My visions show me only... tranquility." He sighed. "I can't condone your actions, but if you're convinced of this terrible future I suppose I can understand them. Have you considered that this prophet-assassin of yours might be misleading you?"

Blackthorn nodded. "That's why I consulted the Codex myself. Now I'm convinced the assassin is right."

"Then I don't know what to say. I see only benefit in the Spell of Rejoining. I truly hope that you come to agree with me. But I've made my decision, and you'll have to accept it."

The nobleman stood up straight. His gaze was severe. "You know I can't accept it."

Lord British gazed back. Years of conflict hung in the thick silence.

"Very well," said Blackthorn with a grimace. "Good night to you both." He stalked out of the room, his cloak sweeping behind him like a shadow. When the door slammed shut, Nystul moved beside Lord British.

"He'll try for the Vortex Lens again," said the white-bearded wizard, "or some other ploy to stop us."

"Then stop him. Do what you must. There's no convincing him with words."

Nystul glanced down at his lord. "Do what I must?"

"He's my friend. He gets the first move. And treat him with dignity." British raked his fingers through his hair. "'The greatest deeds always meet the greatest resistance.' Damn you, Blackthorn."

Please. Don't do this. Come back to Castle Blackthorn.

No choice, my lady.

Exedur says you'll fail.

Does he? Does he indeed? Then you know what to do if I don't return.

I won't. It's too much to ask of me, and for what, Blackthorn?

Because I beg of you, my lady. Only once before have I begged of anyone, and that was British himself. Gavrielle, do you know what I'm trying to say to you?

I dare not listen, my lord.

Please. If I fail, everything depends on you.

Good bye, Lord Blackthorn.

Near the center of Castle Britannia stood a tall, slender bell tower. It rose high above the surrounding rooftops, its snow-softened peak aglow like a second moon in the night sky. The open belfry sang bittersweet notes in the frigid wind.

Just inside, near the giant bell, a cloaked figure appeared. Blackthorn shivered and flipped up his hood against the cold.

"You came sooner than I thought you would," said Nystul's gruff voice. The old wizard seemed to congeal from the darkness. He wore a tall hat with a wide brim, which shielded his face from the wind. "You must have been prepared."

Blackthorn spoke from the shrouds of his rippling cloak. "I'm taking the lens away from here. Or you can surrender it now and forget all about the Spell of Rejoining."

"You're afraid," said Nystul, "because you are not aligned with the Virtues."

"I fear your recklessness." Blackthorn flung his cloak off one shoulder, revealing his sword arm. "And I suppose we may as well start this." The slender sword in his hand could have been forged of red moonlight. Its hilt contained a length of clear crystal, banded by iron. Inside the crystal was a small, gray shape.

"By Justice and Honor! That's a finger of Mondain! You've had that all this time?" Nystul scowled. "I know your methods are reprehensible, but I never imagined you would debase yourself with such a vile artifact. You sicken me, Blackthorn."

"I call this sword Shadowghast. I think it's a rather appropriate use of such a vile artifact." He tilted up the point of the ghostly crimson sword. "Your trouble, Nystul, is that you have no sense of irony."

Then the bell tower screamed with a nightmare wind. Around them howled a sudden cyclone, inside of which tendrils of flame streamed in golden spirals. Whips of lightning smashed against the tower's exterior, but the stones held firm. The wooden floor grumbled with the thunder of the assault. The great bell swayed and moaned.

"It's pointless!" shouted Nystul, his long beard dancing around him. "Your elements can't pierce the castle's enchantments!"

Blackthorn said nothing, but his eyes glittered yellow. He glanced up at the sky. From the midst of high clouds appeared many specks of light, growing larger with passing moments. A shower of flaming boulders plummeted from the stars. Nystul stepped to the window and lifted his hands, in which globes of icy radiance formed. He gauged the approaching firestorm.

To observers on the far banks of Brittany Bay, across the water from Castle Britannia, the thunderstones sparkled in a dazzling show moments before the drums of impact were heard. Arcs of frost-cold light dashed in the air to meet them. The display twinkled brilliantly on the wind-ruffled waters of the lake.

In the city of Britain, lamps blinked out fearfully.

In the bell tower Nystul slung orbs of icy flame at the incoming fireballs. With a shout Blackthorn lunged forward, his cloak sweeping behind him, and thrust Shadowghast's red blade at the old wizard. But the sword struck an unseen wall. A metallic peal stabbed through the cacophony of whirlwinds and thunderstones. A crack formed in the air.

A sudden burst of sparks flung the nobleman backwards, where he slammed into the hard mass of the bell. Below him was the steep plummet down the tower's long shaft. He pushed off the iron surface and tumbled back onto solid ground. In a crouch he hissed another spell. A flick of his wrist launched a scintillating bolt of emerald at Nystul. The old man's eyes opened wide; his gnarled hand gestured quickly. The emerald bolt careened off and zigzagged back toward Blackthorn. The nobleman swept Shadowghast in the bolt's path, smashing it out of the air.

Blackthorn charged again, drawing his sword back for another blow. Nystul lifted his arms like a vulture's wings and snarled with blazing red eyes. From his mouth lashed a streak of gleaming white. Blackthorn parried the bolt with his hand in a cascade of bright embers. With Shadowghast he blocked another white lash from the wizard's mouth.

Nystul's long hair whirled around his face like a demonic mane. He pressed his attack, adding strikes of flame from both hands. Blackthorn retreated, batting the spells with hand and blade.

An instant later the final thunderstone rocketed at the tower, unimpeded by Nystul's defense. When it hit, the world roared and toppled around both combatants.

Blackthorn rolled to his feet. Around him flames and cinders were strewn across the floor. One corner of the belfry was demolished. The bell itself hung precariously on broken timbers. To one side lay Nystul, his tattered clothes oozing curls of smoke. The old man stirred. Blackthorn tensed.

The wizard leapt up and sailed over him like some ragged spirit, arms outstretched like wings, talons of lightning slashing from his eyes. The first strike hit Blackthorn hard, knocking him on his back. His chest seared and sizzled. The second strike he parried with Shadowghast, and by the third he had found his feet. His crimson blade slashed at the floating wizard. At the last moment Nystul revolved away. Shadowghast struck the giant bell, which wailed as it cracked. The blow pushed it from its damaged supports. It groaned as it fell for several seconds. By the time it hit the base of the tower, its iron body shattered like a brittle gray eggshell, corrupted by the foul touch of Blackthorn's vile blade.

Shadowghast leapt again at Nystul, tearing the rags of his cloak. Then Blackthorn conjured a glowing chain and wrapped it like a tentacle around the wizard. The old man slammed to the tower floor, pinned.

An eerie quiet settled over the scene. Blackthorn stood above Nystul. Wrapped in luminous chains, the old wizard gasped for breath.

"Something's wrong," he panted, glancing around in confusion. "You've -- you've dispelled the castle's defenses! It's not possible!"

Blackthorn's voice rasped from his wounds. "No, it isn't possible. No one could take Castle Britannia that easily." He grinned. "We're not at Britannia anymore."

The world fluttered and changed. They were on a crenellated tower, above a different castle, surrounded by a lake. To the north lay wilderness; to the south, the glittering lights of Britain. The winter stars soared majestically overhead. "I had no hope of beating you at your home," said Blackthorn, "so I've brought you to mine."

"How -- when did ---"

"Nystul, you furry old prune, you approach sorcery like a mathematician. You're powerful but predictable. Myself, I think of sorcery as art. And art is the realm of emotion and perception." He knelt over the bound wizard and presented the hilt of his sword. "Did Shadowghast give you a fright? Were you distracted, trying to work out what exactly it might do? I brought it for that very reason. You were so busy worrying about my sword that you didn't notice when we teleported away, just as the thunderstone hit."

"Then you weren't after the Vortex Lens. You were after me."

"I'm betting British needs you to perform that spell."

The wizard ground his teeth. "Lord British will demand my release. You may have beaten me, but you can't beat him."

"Don't be so sure," said Blackthorn with a stern glare, "but it doesn't matter, because you're going to give me your word that you won't perform the Spell of Rejoining. And if you're true to the Virtues, then I know you'll keep it."

"I'll give you no such promise!"

Blackthorn lifted his blade. "Then I'm going to kill you."

The wizard bared his teeth. "Kill me then!"

"Don't be a fool, Nystul! There's no resurrection after Shadowghast bites." He swayed and coughed. He touched his chest wound and examined bloody fingers. "Dammit, I'm doing this for the good of everyone! That means you and British as well. Can't you see that?"

"I'll give you no such promise."

"Nystul, don't make me do this!" He circled the tip of Shadowghast around the wizard's throat. "I won't let you throw me into the future I've seen!"

From behind him shot a sound like cracking wood. Blackthorn choked on a word and doubled over, collapsing beside Nystul. The glowing chains around the old wizard vanished.

At the far end of the tower was an apparition in a white hood and billowing white cloak. Lady Gavrielle stood motionless. A coil of smoke rose from her palm where she had cast a spell at Blackthorn.

Grunting with pain, Nystul struggled to his feet. "You? Here?" But he saw tears glisten on her cheeks as the winter wind froze them, and he said no more. They shared a look filled with silent comprehension. Then the sorcerer murmured a strained spell, and he and the fallen Blackthorn vanished. Only the crimson Shadowghast remained.

After a long while Gavrielle crouched over the sword, picked it up and walked back to the stairwell leading down into the bowels of the haunting, lordless Castle Blackthorn.