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  • Queen of the Darkness(Black Jewels,Book 3) by Anne Bishop
  • PART 1

    Chapter One

    1 / Terreille

    Dorothea SaDiablo, the High Priestess of the Territory called Hayll, slowly climbed the stairs to the large wooden platform. It was a bright morning in early autumn, and Draega, Hayll's capital, was far enough south that the days were still warm. The heavy black cloak that shrouded Dorothea's body made her sweat. Under the deep hood, her hair was damp and her neck itched. No matter. In a few minutes, she could shed the cloak.

    When she reached the platform, she saw the lumpy canvas that stretched across the front, closest to the waiting crowd, and automatically began taking shallow breaths through her mouth. Foolish. She'd used every spell she knew to keep what was beneath that canvas a secret until the proper time. Forcing herself to breathe naturally, she walked across the platform, stopping a few feet behind the canvas.

    Watching her, with wariness and resentment, were the Queens of all the Territories in the Realm of Terreille. She had demanded that each Territory Queen bring her two strongest Province Queens and any Warlord Princes who served her. She knew that many of the Queens, especially those from the far-western Territories, had come expecting a trap of some kind.

    Well, the bitches were right. But if she presented the bait in the right way, they would throw themselves into the trap without a second thought.

    Dorothea raised her arms. The crowd's rippling murmurs faded to silence. Using Craft to enhance her voice so that everyone would hear her, she began the next move in a deadly game of power.

    "My Sisters and Brothers, I called you here to warn you about a terrible discovery I made recently, something that threatens every one of the Blood in the entire Realm of Terreille.

    "In the past, I've done some unspeakably cruel things. I have been responsible for the destruction of Queens and some of the best males in the Realm. I have bred fear into the Blood in order to be the controlling power in Terreille. Me. A High Priestess who knows better than anyone that a Priestess can't be a substitute for a Queen, no matter how skilled or how strong she is in her Craft.

    "I will shoulder the sorrow and burden of those acts for the rest of my life. But I tell you this now: I HAVE BEEN USED! A few weeks ago, while using my skills as a Black Widow to spin a tangled web of dreams and visions, I inadvertently ripped through a mental shroud that had surrounded me for all the centuries I've been the High Priestess of Hayll. I fought my way through that mental fogging and finally saw what my tangled webs had been trying to tell me for so very long.

    "Thereis someone who wants to dominate Terreille. Thereis someone who wants to subjugate all the Blood in this Realm. But it isn't me. I've been the instrument of a monstrous, malevolent being who wants to crush us and consume us, who plays with us the same way a cat plays with a mouse before it strikes the killing blow. That monster has a name—a name that has been feared for thousands upon thousands of years, and with good reason. Our destroyer is the Prince of the Darkness, the High Lord of Hell."

    Uneasy murmurs rose from the crowd.

    "You doubt me?" Dorothea shouted. She tore off the cloak and tossed it aside. Her wispy, white hair, which had been thick and black a few weeks ago, fell around her shoulders. Her sagging, deeply lined face twisted, and tears filled her gold eyes as the murmurs changed to shocked exclamations. "Look what happened to me when I fought to free myself from his insidious spells.Look at me. This is the price I paid, so that you would be aware of the danger."

    Dorothea pressed a hand against her chest, gasping for breath.

    Her Steward stepped forward and gently grasped her arm to support her. "You must stop, Priestess. This is too much for you to endure."

    "No," Dorothea gasped, still using Craft to enhance her voice. "I must tell them everything while I can. I may not have another chance. Once he realizes I know about him..."

    The crowd grew silent.

    Lowering her hand, Dorothea stood as straight as she could, ignoring the ache in her spine. "I was not the High Lord's only instrument. There are those among you who have had the misfortune to have had Daemon Sadi or Lucivar Yaslana serving in your courts. May the Darkness forgive me, I sent those monsters into fragile Territories, and because of them, Queens have died. Sometimes whole courts were torn apart. I, like Prythian, Askavi's High Priestess, thought we were sending them into service in other courts by our own choice, in the hope that they could be controlled. But we were manipulated into sending them to those Territoriesbecause they are the High Lord's sons !They are that bestial creature's seeds, and they have grown up to be his tools of destruction. The control Prythian and I thought we had over them was nothing but an illusion, a blind to conceal their true purpose.

    "Both of them disappeared several years ago. Most of us hoped they had died. Not so. I've learned from some brave Brothers and Sisters who are now living in the Kaeleer Territory called Little Terreille that both Yaslana and Sadi are in the Shadow Realm, where the High Lord has been living under the guise of being the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan. The viper's children have returned to the nest.

    "There's more. The High Lord has an unhealthy influence over most of the Territory Queens in Kaeleer, as well as absolute control over a young woman who is the strongest witch in all the Realms. With her strength behind him, he will overwhelm us—unless we strike first. We have no choice, my Brothers and Sisters. If we don't crush the High Lord and everyone in his service, the cruelty I have done as his instrument will seem like a child's game in comparison."

    Dorothea paused for a moment. "Many of you have friends or loved ones who have fled to Kaeleer in order to escape the violence that has been strangling Terreille. Look at what has happened to many of those who have run straight into the High Lord's seductive embrace."

    Using Craft, she whipped away the canvas covering the front of the platform. Then she clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from gagging as the flies rose from the mutilated corpses.

    Screams filled the air. A piercing shriek of grief and rage rose above the other voices. Then another, and another, as the people nearest the platform recognized what was left of a face or recognized a distinctive piece of jewelry.

    Using Craft again, Dorothea gently drew the canvas over the bodies. She waited several minutes for the screams to fade to muffled sobs.

    "Know this," she said. "I will use every bit of Craft I have learned, every drop of strength that I have in me to defeat this monster. But if I stand alone, I will surely be defeated. If we stand and fight together, we have a chance to rid ourselves of the High Lord and those who serve him. Many of us won't survive this fight, but our children—" Her voice broke. It took her a moment to continue. "But our children will know the freedom we paid so dearly to give them."

    Turning around, she stumbled. Her Steward and Master of the Guard supported her across the platform and down the steps. Tears and a fierce pride filled their eyes as they gently settled her into her open carriage for the short ride back to her mansion. When they tried to go with her, she shook her head.

    "Your duties are here," she said weakly.

    "But, Priestess—" the Master of the Guard started to protest.

    "Please," Dorothea said. "Your strength will serve me better if you remain here." Calling in a folded piece of paper, she handed it to her Steward. "If these Queens ask to see me, arrange for an audience this afternoon." She saw the protest in his eyes, but he said nothing.