The strength enchantments wore off just as the party had completed moving their pile of booty to the narrow strip of needle-carpeted grass separating the forest from the swamp. Gwen, who was still magically enhanced, offered to hike back to Bellik’s and return with the horses, and Joraz, who seemed to have bottomless reserves of energy, accompanied her. Breygon was too tired to object; he merely nodded his thanks and collapsed to the forest floor. The wolf sniffed at him a few times, then settled to the pine needles. Everyone else found a welcome seat to wait for the wagon.
The rogue and the monk returned a couple of hours later. “Slow going for the horses,” Joraz remarked apologetically. Breygon merely blinked. He had been asleep the entire time.
Loading the wagon was a nightmare; the coffin had to be emptied, hoisted into the wagon bed, and refilled one brick at a time. It took much longer to lead the heavily-laden horses back over root and under branch, and by the time they emerged from the woods near the Rune Stones, the sun had sunk behind the Western hills, and the cloak of night was creeping into the sky from behind the mountains, far to the East. Even Qaramyn was exhausted; when asked to light the way for the horses, he had simply shaken his head, and Joraz had filled in with a torch from his pack.
Once back at Bellik’s, Breygon’s heart quailed at the effort necessary to move their plunder into their hired rooms (And for that matter, he reminded himself, it was probably not wise to draw that much attention to it). As much as he hated the notion of depriving one of the party of their right to a comfortable bed, he saw no alternative, and was about to ask for volunteers to sleep with the wagon when Qaramyn solved the dilemma for him. At the wizard’s urging, they tied the oilskin cover tightly down over the wagon’s contents, and Qaramyn made a few brief gestures and muttered a series of arcane phrases. For a moment, the entire wagon seemed limned in a soft red glow, but this faded quickly from sight.
“I’ve warded it,” the wizard explained briefly. “Anyone touching the wagon without first speaking the password will trigger the alarm.”
“What’s the password?” Gwendilyne asked immediately. Qaramyn merely glared at her.
Breygon smiled, exhausted but relieved. “All right then,” he said. “People, we’re done. I’ll see you when we break fast.”
With tired nods, the group left the stable yard and circled around to the back entrance to Bellik’s. As they filed into their rented bunkroom, Alric said, half to himself, “You know, I’m kind of hungry...”
Joraz rolled his eyes at Breygon, and both chuckled as they entered the building. Inside of five minutes, both were asleep. Ten minutes and a meaty nightcap later, so was Alric.
* * * * *
The dreams came in a chaotic jumble, as dreams after battle often do.
And as often happens among comrades, when the dreams came, they were shared.
* * * * *
The watcher was one of four who stood at a crossroads – three men, and a woman of the Fair Folk. All wore the dark robes and hood of the Order of the Light, and all were young. They clasped hands in farewell, and separated, each taking a separate path. The watcher stopped to honour his departing comrades.
One of the men – the shortest – took the low road. It led downwards, through swamps and fens, past broken castles and abandoned towns. As he watched, the man grew taller. Fire sprang from his fingertips, consuming shadows and unseen attackers. As he marched, the man grew ever greater, until he dwarfed the surrounding trees, and mountains were humbled by his passing.
The elf woman took the high road. It led through mountain passes to fair cities, graced with tall towers capped with snapping pennons. Birds flocked around her, settling on her shoulders, and fell beasts loped tamely alongside. From the skies, a gleaming metallic dragon settled thunderously to earth; she mounted athwart its vast shoulders, and it streaked skywards.
The man of middling height took the third road, leading through valleys and grottos to a dark cavern. He descended broad stairs into cold mists. Skeletal hands clutched at him from every side. With blasts of blinding light, he drove back the shadows, scattering his foes. As he faded from view, a crown seemed to adorn his raven hair.
The watcher - the tallest of the four – then turned and took the fourth road. It was unpaved, rough, riddled with ruts and holes and stones. Ahead of him, seemingly suspended by the low, earth-hugging clouds, a massive, ironbound book floated in the air. As he approached, it receded, and he broke into a stumbling run. As he ran, his beard sprouted and grew, and his hair faded, first to grey, then to white. Faster and faster he followed, and yet the book seemed always just beyond his fingertips. His heart laboured in his chest; his sight dimmed; he grew terribly tired. It seemed that he ran forever…
* * * * *
Lodan was climbing into the night sky. Her mate Chuadan had not yet appeared, but was doubtless just under the horizon, when Gwendilyne slipped back into the stable-yard. She trotted over to the wagon and stood a pace back, arms crossed, staring at it in the moonlight. She nodded to herself, gritted her teeth, took a deep breath, then stepped forward and touched the hub of one of the wagon wheels with a trembling finger.
Gwendilyne smiled. She drew her dagger, stood on her tip-toes, and carved her initials in the running board. Then she slipped quietly back into the bunkroom, kicked off her boots, climbed into her bunk, and went to sleep.
* * * * *
The watcher peered at the quarry from deep shadows. Before him, a black-cloaked man moved furtively up an alley. Hiding behind a large wooden bin, the man drew a dagger and waited patiently. Three commoners, herdsmen by their attire, ambled drunkenly past, but the hidden man made no move. A moment later a single pedestrian – a mailed guardsman – trotted heedlessly by. In a flash, the cloaked man was on him, drawing the dagger across his victim’s throat, and hauling the man’s still-struggling body back into the alley. They grappled briefly, hot blood spraying across the wall of a nearby bunkhouse, the smaller assailant struggling to control the waning thrashings of his much larger victim.
In a moment, the guardsman lay still. The murderer rifled his victim’s clothing and possessions quickly and professionally, discarding the poorly-made sword and dagger, twisting a small gold ring quickly from the fellow’s finger, and scooping a handful of silver and copper coins from the man’s purse into his own. After a moment’s comparison, he took the dead man’s boots as well. As he gathered up his own possessions, a heavy tome fell from his pack onto the ground, landing in the pool of gore spreading from the still-warm corpse. The scene froze for a moment; the cover of the book bore an intricate symbol, familiar to the unseen watcher. The footpad quickly scooped it up, drying it on a corner of the dead man’s cloak before stuffing it securely back into his pack. Then he moved off down the alley.
A blur; a changed scene. As if flying, the watcher swooped down from the clouds, emerging at dizzying height over a vast city built into the bend of a broad river. A bastioned semi-circular wall separated the city from the countryside. Houses of wood and stone lined broad, well-paved streets, and the machicolations of tall towers and the roof-trees of mighty mansions clawed at the sky. A fortress stood at one end of the wall, protecting both the city and a vast river harbour containing dozens of tall ships. Near the tip of the peninsula, a mighty bridge of stone vaulted high over the river, the road stretching broad and grey across it, climbing towards snow-capped peaks far in the distance.
The watcher descended on the city, sliding ethereally between the walls of the buildings, emerging behind an enormous stone manor. As he watched, the footpad emerged from the shadows, looking dusty and travel-worn, but still carrying his pack, and wearing a new, if mud-stained, cloak. He slunk furtively to a small door at the rear of the building and knocked. Dogs yelped behind the portal. After a moment, the door opened slightly and, following a whispered conversation, the thief passed the book over, receiving in return a small, heavy purse. A dark blue robe flashed in the light of a lamp, and the scene froze again. On the unseen door-warden’s wrist, a tiny tattoo could be seen, consisting of a hand and a thundercloud, wreathed by a chieftain’s torc.
The image lasted an instant; then sleeve, hand and book were withdrawn. The thief bowed slightly; the door closed. The unseen watcher noted the lintel of the doorway; it was marked with a peculiar pattern of black and white stones cut into irregular tetragons.
Before the watcher’s eyes, the man retreated to one of the alleys. He slipped quietly into a dark doorway and undid the ties of the purse, running a finger through the contents; and he smiled. Then his smile vanished; he seemed to hear something. Quickly closing the satchel, he jammed it into his belt, and moved to draw his dagger; but he was too late. A grey and white shadow leapt from the darkness and fell on him. He was bowled over backwards, smashing through the wooden door and landing hard on the flagstones of an unlit room. The shadow followed, moving with uncanny speed.
The watcher saw no more. But he heard a single anguished scream, cut short by a dreadful dying gurgle.
And then...sounds of gnawing...
* * * * *
Exhausted as he was, Qaramyn lay awake, seething. He had noticed the Halfling’s surreptitious departure, but this time he had decided to feign sleep. He had no interest in another confrontation. There were bigger problems on his mind.
From his point of view, the adventure had been a disaster from start to finish. The failure to investigate the last nook and cranny of the druidic tomb; the loss of Corporal Telvor on the road; and the abortive battle at the abandoned farm were all excusable as the fumblings of tyros. But the litany of errors had continued. Since their arrival in Bornhavn, two civilians had been attacked on the very steps of the Shrine; the great hall of the wealthiest and most influential man in town had been attacked by legions of the undead and then half burned-down; the most respected member of the community had been gutted like a Jule capon; his only possible successor had vanished under circumstances that left grave doubts as to her health; and the shrine itself had been defiled by their adversary.
The fact that they had responded quickly and decisively to most of the incidents made no difference to the wizard; incapable of accepting anything less than perfection, it was in his nature to apportion out (and if necessary, accept) the blame for everything that went wrong. A poor score for five of Aeryn’s finest, he grumped sourly.
Not that Qaramyn gave a weasel’s whisker for the Watch or its reputation; he had little use for such a hidebound and rigidly hierarchical organization, other than the fact that it allowed him to engage in his investigations and perambulations surrounded by a coterie of heavily-armed arrow-cushions. But even that had its downside. Like that moron Alric, for example.
Until today, Qaramyn had been prepared to overlook the man’s moodiness and brash imbecility in favour of his muscular attributes. But the incident in the vampire’s lair had been the final straw. Of all of their discoveries in the course of the present adventure, the ancient crystal ball containing the Elven skull had been by far the most promising. Qaramyn’s fingers had actually been twitching to examine it when the idiot, ignoring the wizard’s shocked attempt to intervene, had decided to crush it with the cleric’s mace. Naturally, the wizard mused, the one blessed weapon we possess was entrusted to the one person stupid enough to use it against an ancient and potent magical relic. He gritted his teeth as he recalled the numbingly awesome shock-wave of arcane energy that had washed over them as the sphere ruptured. Such power – wasted, he groaned to himself. The fool! It had been a criminal squandering of opportunity.
Well, no more. He’d had enough of the man’s wretched stupidity, and tomorrow he would tell the half-elf so. Either that oaf goes, thought Qaramyn grimly, or I do.
Searching his conscience, Qaramyn was a little surprised to discover that he didn’t really care which of the two options Breygon elected. Calmer now that he had decided what course to follow on the morrow, the wizard rolled over, closed his eyes, and slept.
* * * * *
She felt a trickle of sweat between her shoulder blades as she worked at the mechanism. It was an especially tricky one – two pressure plates, exquisitely-balanced, counter-rigged with a wire actuator, so slender as to be practically invisible to the naked eye. The whole was concealed behind a false stone-front of plaster and pigment, and fiendish in its intricacy. She concentrated fiercely, distracted by the noise of the battle taking place just behind her.
And then it was too late. She heard a shouted warning, and a heavy body crashed into her from behind, propelling her forward onto the trapped floor panel. She felt, rather than heard, the counter-wire snap, and then the world flipped upside-down. The panel dropped away, and she felt herself falling. A horse shout informed her that whatever had knocked her forward was falling, too. Vision vanished in the dark shaft, but the thing groped for her, and she felt hairy, clawed hands close around her throat. Desperately, she twisted in the thing’s grip, trying to get her knees around, as they fell weightless through space.
It worked; they smashed together into icy water with bone-crushing force, but at least she was on top, and she felt her knees drive into her attacker’s sternum as he kindly cushioned her fall. Fetid breath whooshed into her face, and the grip on her neck slackened momentarily. She struggled out and upwards, swimming madly in the semi-darkness towards the flickering light of a torch, not far away.
Her hands and then her feet touched shelving stone, and she struggled up onto a scum-slicked gravel shingle. The light that she had taken for a torch was in fact a shuddering yellow flame emanating from a rock outcropping. As her eyes adjusted, she glanced around, and realized that she was in a cave. Rough, craggy rock walls arched upwards, blending into a roof far above. She caught a glint of stalactites. Not far away, she could hear a muted, continuous roar, as though from a storm or surf, far off in the distance.
A splash; she turned just as a clawed fist clutched at her ankle. She fell to her face with a startled yell as her assailant, whom she had thought dead, began dragging her back towards the freezing underground lake. She pivoted in his grip and began kicking with her free foot. She felt her heel meet bone and heard an angry snarl, and risked a glance. Lank white hair, a protruding jaw, heavy tusk-like teeth. She kicked again, and again, to no avail, the creature was too strong. It hauled her backwards into the lake, pulling her towards its fangs.
And then it was gone. She blinked in astonishment; one instant the creature had been about to tear out her throat; the next it was headless, twin crimson jets fountaining upwards from the stump of its neck. Its head splashed into the water, a stunned smirk on its fanged, pig-like, face, and as its grip relaxed, she kicked herself backwards and regained the shore. She eyed the lake carefully, wondering who – or what – had saved her.
Out of the darkness swam a creature out of nightmare. A woman; for all intents and purposes, an Elf woman. But no Elf had ever been crowned with horns, or cursed with the body of an enormous serpent. As it slithered towards her through the water, she saw that one of its hands held a great, blood-stained scimitar; and that the other was extended, as if in offer of friendship or aid.
“Are thee hurt?” the snake-woman asked in the Common Speech, her voice hissing sibilantly over the clumsy syllables..
She shook her head. “Just a little winded. And a little surprised,” she replied. “Thank you for…”
“…for save thee live? Thee is welcome,” the monster answered. “Follow I, an’ it please thee.”
The snake-woman replaced the sword in a sheath slung across her muscular shoulders. The watcher noted that her rescuer wore bright banded armour in the manner of a normal person, but from the waist down, green scales shone. With the side-to-side ambulatory movements of a serpent, the snake-woman slithered up out of the lake and down a rough side-passage. The visitor followed, noting with amazement the tremendous length and powerful musculature of the snake-body.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked, and shuddered as the snake-woman turned her torso completely around to answer, although her body was still moving in a forwards direction.
“I have something to show to thee,” the monster replied. “Follow.”
The passageway was not long, and was lit at regular intervals by the dim magically-generated flames spurting from knobs of rock placed here and there, consuming nothing but the boundless arcane bedrock of the universe. The tunnel opened into an opulent chamber, just as rough as the others, but lit by dozens of the rock-flames, and carpeted with furs, skins and even woven rugs. In the centre of the vast room, a gleaming waterfall plummeted from the unseen ceiling and crashed into a deep lake, raising a chill mist and emitting a deafening road. Items of furniture lay scattered about, and the visitor saw a large wooden desk covered with books, parchment and pens. There was even a full suit of plate armour propped against one wall, held in place by a crossed pair of pikes.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“My home,” the snake-woman replied simply. “Come thee here.” She rummaged in the rubbish beside the desk, and emerged with a glimmering plate. It seemed to be made of polished silver.
The visitor approached. “An’ it please thee, look closely,” the snake-woman said. She held the plate before her guest’s eyes.
The visitor stared at the plate. At first she saw nothing more than her own image. Then her head seemed to swim, and her visage blurred, and the scene changed. She saw a knight in armour, and a great warhorse, and a battle. She saw monstrous humanoids with the heads of dogs, of horses and of bears. She saw a white-haired, white-bearded giant three times as tall as a man, rending warriors limb from limb in his mighty fists. “What is this?” she asked, her voice trembling.
“Watch further,” her hostess commanded. The scene shifted again; she saw the knight lying prone and spattered with blood, an immense rent in his breastplate. Glancing up, she noted that the suit of armour leaning against the wall was marked with the same deep gash. She glanced back at the plate. The knight had disappeared, replaced by a grey stone bier. Atop the bier sat a gleaming skull, carved of some dark, translucent stone. She looked a question at the snake-woman.
“It is the Eye,” her hostess said. “All depends on it. All flows from it. Thy task is to find the Eye.” The silvery plate went dark, and the room seemed to fill with a grey mist. The roaring sound from the waterfall increased until it became deafening. She was sinking again; icy water rose to her chest and lapped at her chin.
“What eye?” the visitor cried. “I don’t understand!”
* * * * *
Breygon listened to the measured breathing of the members of his company. Bone-tired and emotionally drained by the day’s endeavours, he was in no mood for sleep. Never in his life had he felt so badly in need of a bath, and the healing punctures on his neck itched abominably. Although I suppose I got off lightly enough, he reflected ruefully, breaking out anew into sweat at the memory of the long moments he had spent paralyzed by the vampire’s gaze. He had heard few tales of such monstrously powerful undead abominations as the one they had faced last night and this morning, but nearly all of them ended badly. Well, we’ve written a different ending this time, he thought. I suppose that’s something.
But the thought didn’t help much. He rolled over on the thin straw palliasse, trying to find a comfortable position, tugging the scratchy blanket up around his shoulders. He felt it again – a crawling sensation on the back of his neck, the feeling that he had always associated with being stalked by something cannier and more woods-crafty than himself. Like being watched. He dismissed the sensation with a shake of his head. “Nerves,” he muttered aloud, thinking, What I need is a drink. A cup of Bellik’s apple brandy might...
He put the idea from his mind, the elvish part of his soul disgusted at the thought of drinking himself into a stupor merely to calm his megrims. With a resigned sigh, the ranger rolled over again, attempting to find a comfortable position, acutely conscious of the shape of the rough boards beneath the mattress. He’d spent more comfortable nights beneath pine boughs, nestled into a mound of dry oak leaves, with field mice crawling over him and gnawing at his harness. Actually, he reflected tiredly, mice weren’t such bad companions. They didn’t eat nearly as much as his present charges, they washed more frequently, and they argued a lot less...
As he drifted off, a final thought wormed its way into his sleepy brain: We’re still being watched.
* * * * *
The tall man stood alone on a hilltop, surrounded by fields of waving wheat, the waning rays of the setting sun glinting off the metal plates and links of his hauberk. Long lines of mountains on his left and his right marched into the distance, their snow-capped peaks glinting in the last rays of the Lantern. Above him, a mighty oak spread its branches against the sky, reaching for Chuadan, newly appeared in the darkening sky. Before him stood The Angel, bearing a flaming sword in one hand, and a pine branch in the other. The Angel fixed him with its awesome, implacable glance, then turned slowly and looked deliberately Westward, into the setting sun. It raised its fists to the sky. The pine sprig burst into flame and crumbled to ash; the sword flamed brightly once, twice, thrice...and then fell dark.
Far to the West, silhouetted by the fading light of dusk, stood a mighty mountain wall. With the speed of dreams, it swept closer; he saw a long, winding road rising into the hills, black flagstones gleaming in the waning light. The road passed between a pair of immense carven figures – broad, squat warriors of the Deeprealm with eyes of fire, their outstretched axes forming an arched gate over the highway. The road halted abruptly, as if severed by a blow of one of those axes, at a deep chasm above a rushing mountain river. On the other side of a gap at least twenty paces broad stood a vast mountain wall, black and forbidding now that the last rays of the sun had vanished behind the Western peaks. A wide porch jutted from the wall, and at its back, carved from the living gutrock of the mountain, stood an immense gate, flanked by two more enormous carven giants of stone. The gate itself was round, as high as three men, and outlined by intricate and ancient carvings, weathered by time.
As the stars came out, winking in the sky, and the Lamps wheeled above, the wind dropped; and one after the other, the mighty gatestones rolled back, revealing a tunnel of inky blackness stretching deep into the mountain. He had expected lights or fires, but none came; instead, a slow, roiling wave of absolute darkness seemed to flow from the opening. Oozing and undulating, it moved with eerie, silent speed across the stone ledge, then seemed to gather itself before leaping the gap of the river chasm. It flowed quickly down the roadbed, swirling and eddying at the feet of the carven warriors.
Of a sudden, he found himself back on the hillock, far down the valley, standing beneath the spreading oak, amid the waving stalks of wheat. He glanced around; the Angel was gone. One the ground where it had stood, the charred pine branch lay abandoned; beside it, the sword, broken in two at the hilts. He looked up. In the distance, he saw the black wave flow out of the mountains, spreading and engulfing the broad valley fields. Like a tide of nothingness, it rolled down the valley, smothering the lands with ebon shadow, flashing past his hillock and lapping eagerly at its edges. Horrified, he watched as wreckage flowed in its wake; fragments of trees, homes and castles, tumbling, crashing and melting into insubstantial flotsam; the fleshless skeletons of sheep and kine; even mighty boulders crumbling into rubble. The black wave destroyed all in its path.
A branch fell from the tree above him, and as he watched in horror,, blackness crept up from its roots, spreading through the limbs, poisoning it from within. Leaves fell, branches sagged and crumbled, and even the grass curled and died. He clutched desperately at the haft of his hammer as the inky mire touched his boots and climbed towards his heart. He felt icy coldness clawing at his soul. And still the deadly wave rolled on.
And then it broke. Far to the East, he saw a light appear, and ran toward it on failing legs. The light came from a quartet of figures that stood on a hillock not unlike the one he had just left. The dark wave climbed the hillock and broke against it like a tsunami; but there it stopped.
Atop the hillock stood four statues, not unlike those he had seen outside the mountain gates. Two stood at the centre of the hillock; a warrior of the Hiarsk, with sword upraised; and at his right hand, a Son of Esu, lightly clad, weaponless, poised and ready. To the right stood a woman of the Halpinya, dagger upraised, a glint in her stone eye. And at the swordsman’s left hand crouched one of the children of the night, an enormous wolf, teeth bared and glimmering in the moonlight. All four seemed to be carved of white stone, and white light sprang from them; and it swallowed the shadow. But the shadow dominated, and the stone of the statues began to crumble.
Quickly, not knowing quite what he was about, he ran up the hill. Light blazed from his outstretched hands, flowing into the statues, and buttressing them against the dark. As he worked the will of his Master, he felt his own strength returning, and the icy tentacles around his heart eased a little.
The statues seemed stronger; their slow disintegration stopped. But still the darkness flowed on, and there was no end to it. His strength was not limitless, and was ebbing. The darkness closed in around them. The night felt like it would last an eternity.
* * * * *
Alric snored contentedly, his bandaged face bedaubed with crumbs and gravy, an empty tankard clutched in one fist. Beside him on the floor, a hammered metal plate held the remains of a mutton-stuffed pasty. Various snorts and rumblings issued from his innards, but he lay still, and shared in the dreams with the rest of them.
* * * * *
He looked down, as though from a great height, and started in alarm. The ancient trees were burning.
As if standing atop an invisible mountain, he watched battle unfold below him. The barren plains met the sylvan hills, and there the men of Harad made their stand. Shoulder to shoulder in serried ranks, the swordsmen stood like molten pillars, their armour gleaming in the twilight. The last rays of Bræadan waning shone upon them, burnishing their snapping banners with hints of gold and silver. But even the Mother’s light could not illumine the dark mass of shadow that blotted out the plains, lapping eagerly at the foothills like a making tide.
At the center of the line lay a hillock, and here were clustered the Royal Guardsman about the great standard. With a start, the watcher recognized the sigil of the High King, not carried in Harad since the Darkness; and beside it, that of the King of the Third House. As he floated above the field on wings of mist, he saw a tiny figure emerge from a bright pavilion. It wore a high helm crowned with the horns and feathers of a War Chief of the Ancient Houses, and in one hand, it held a long, black sword that seemed to drink in the light, and smoked in the last rays of the setting sun.
As he watched, the figure strode towards a great silver dragon that stood patiently behind the lines, an ornate saddle across its back, a strong helmet set with razor-sharp tines adorning its serpentine head. The mighty beast dipped its head to allow the figure to mount. Once its rider had settled athwart the creature’s massive shoulders, the dragon gathered itself and leapt skyward. Behind the long lines of spearmen, swordsmen and archers, a host of dragons – silver, bronze, brass and even gold – appeared, as numerous as butterflies in springtime. The watcher choked back tears; this could only be the field of Oldarran, the last stand of the Haradi before the great empire of the Elves was swallowed by the gathering darkness. He was seeing with his own eyes a tale that lived only in the darkest legends of the Fair Folk: the Death of Yarchian, and the Gloaming of the Wyrms.
Across the plains, the face of Bræadan flickered and vanished behind the hills, and a rosy glow sprang up across the sky. At the disappearance of the light, the shadow seemed to grow and darken. Bright flashes of flame sprang from its borders, and the watcher could see the grass of the plains burning. As the dragons neared the shadow, it burst apart, and he could see massive figures wielding long, terrible swords and rods of flame and lightning. They towered above the grasslands, trampling their terrified minions underfoot, casting incandescent bolts of death and horror at the sky.
Time seemed to speed up. As he watched, the demons of fire released the restraints on their followers, and a wave of inky blackness swept across the plains towards the Haradi lines. The tiny figures of orcs and goblins, of ogres and trolls mingled with the more massive forms of giants as they swept up the hillside. The Haradi wizards hurled gouts of flame and rained blasts of argent destruction down upon the enemy, cutting vast swaths through their ranks; but the enemy were legion, fell-handed and innumerable. The few dragons who were not engaged with the fire demons fell upon the enemy horde from great heights, cleaving their lines with swipes of teeth and talons, and raking them with bursts of flame and blasts of lightning; but it was still not enough. With a shattering crash, the dark wave burst against the Haradi lines. They held for the briefest of moments... and then they buckled.
The scene changed, and the watcher saw one of the Hiarsk striding heedlessly through the battle, as tall and as strong as a man of Esud, and yet graced with the fair hair and features of the Haradi. His glittering armour was scratched and dented, his hands drenched in the carnage of battle. He walked grimly through the field of the slain, seeking a foe worthy of his attention. The orcs and goblins who came upon him, thinking him one of the Kindred, he merely struck aside, his vast strength hurling their broken bodies to the charred, blood-soaked earth. A towering giant of ice ran gibbering at him, axe raised on high; the walker muttered a spell almost negligently, and burst the creature’s heart. He came upon one of the Fell Wyrms, a full-grown red dragon dining off the carcass of a Guardsman’s horse; but when it raised its head from its sanguinary feast and hissed at him, he glared a warning, and it subsided, settling back upon its kill.
At length he found what he sought. One of the Demons of Fire, fresh from slaughtering a company of High Guardsmen, shrieked a challenge at him, and he ran lightly and gladly to meet it. The flaming sword swept down towards him, and he leapt gracefully aside, striking back with his rod of azure crystal. A bolt of argence blazed through the night, and the monster shrieked again, this time in pain. Of a sudden, as if from nowhere, he was struck by a blast of dry, stinking heat; and three more of the Demons appeared.
This was unexpected; he found himself hard pressed. He felled one, then two with mighty blows of his azure rod, but their swords clove his armour and ate at his flesh, and their fire burned his fragile manu, and he felt his anima ebbing away.
A third Demon fell in flaming ruin to the earth; but he himself was nearly finished. As the fourth pressed him backward, fainting and stumbling over the corpses of Orcs and Elves, he whispered an invocation, half prayer and half apology, to his mistress Tîan, and prepared to snap his azure rod to prevent it being carried back in triumph to the Enemy. A flurry of blows forced him to one knee. He tripped and fell heavily to the ground; but as the Demon roared in victory and swept up its flaming glaive to deliver a killing blow, it screamed and stumbled backwards: a great, grey wolf had grasped its heel in its mighty jaws, and would not let go. With the last of his strength, he leapt up. His azure rod flashed in his grip and became a great silver sword, and with it, he clove the demon from horns to teeth. And then he knew nothing more. The watcher saw the rod-wielder fall as if lifeless to the flame-licked and gore-drenched grass.
When he awoke, the wolf was licking the blood from his wounds. Already his strength was returning. He saw that he had been dragged into a low nook in the hills a short distance from the field of battle, away from the smouldering corpses, and that his azure rod, slicked with black, clotted blood, lay by his side.
He sat up quickly, glancing around. Won or lost, he knew not, but the battle had moved on, and for the nonce, the dell was quiet. He glanced at the wolf, who sat back on her haunches, gazing at him expectantly.
He stared back, surprised at the beast’s courage and ferocity in attacking one of the mightiest of the Minions of Dark, and even more surprised that one of the monsters of Bardan had elected to aid him. “I am in your debt, sister,” he said warily in the language of the Fallen Ones.
“No debt is owed,” the wolf answered. He was stunned, for in speaking, the creature had used the Speech of Ana.
“How is that you speak as a Minion of the Light?” he asked, amazed.
“It is your doing,” the wolf replied. “Or more properly, the doing of your sires long past. When mighty Chuadwaith , nigh on a thousand years ago, slew Mordakris, servant of Bardan and the Master of my people, he released us from bondage; and accursed Bardan, bethinking himself of conquest rather than creation, neglected to appoint a new lord over the Wolves. Having lived for an eon free of his foul suzerainty, we are all of us at liberty to choose whom to serve.” The wolf shook its ruff and settled back again. “I choose the Light.”
“I am honoured,” he replied, abashed that he, as Lord of Hunters, had never thought to question this most peculiar and unexpected of the consequences of Mordakris’ unlamented fall so many centuries past.
“That is well,” the wolf said, “but I do not seek to bestow honour. And I warn you that you may not wish to accept my allegiance once you have heard my price.”
“Name your price,” he said immediately. “For inasmuch as you have redeemed my life, I am bound to answer it.”
“Then hearken well,” said the wolf. “I am old. My mate is dead these long years; he fell in battle against the abominations of Bardan nigh on twenty snows past. And in our short time together, he never sired my litter.” The wolf paused. “I would have you find me a mate.”
He was taken aback. “How is it,” he asked, “that one of your courage and strength never found another mate?”
The wolf grinned, its tongue lolling out. “Your words are kind, honoured one,” she replied, “but you look on me with the eyes of a man of Harad.” He said nothing at this. “In the eyes of my people, my coat is patchy, my teeth dull, and my limbs unseemly long. And, too, I am old, and near the end of my bearing years. There is little in me of beauty.”
“Courage is beautiful,” he replied, “and thou hast it in abundance.” Fully recovered now, he retrieved his azure road and stood. “And wouldst thou then have me order another to mate with thee? Thinkest thou that I could command such lordship over thy kin?”
“I know not what may be, or may not be,” the wolf answered simply. “I only seek your aid. In faith, I beg it.”
“Then this is my answer, little sister,” he replied. Drawing himself to his full height, he raised his eyes, and his azure rod, to the sky; and from both sprang gouts of gleaming, liquid argent fire, piercing the evenshade. A haze seemed to settle over him, and when it cleared, the Hiarsk was gone, and an immense white wolf stood in the dell, its eyes gleaming blue in the darkness. The white wolf strode towards the grey, shaking its ruff slightly.
“How is this possible?” said the female, struck immobile at this new apparition. “Art thou then mighty in sorcery among the men of Harad?”
“Mighty in sorcery, perhaps,” answered the White Wolf, “but I am no man of Harad.” He sat back on his haunches and regarded her evenly, his azure eyes glinting in the dark. “I am Tioreth, lord of hounds and hunters, eldest and first among the Servants of imprisoned Tîan. At my mistress’ behest, and to assuage my own sorrow and rage at the gathering darkness, I fight alongside the Haradi, against the abominations of the Uruqua that assail them; for this will be the final War of the Powers for Anuru, after which the Vow shall come into force, and the Dome shall fall, and all must draw beyond its veil.”
“Then, you are neither Man nor Elf,” the grey wolf said in amazement.
“I am a wolf,” Tioreth replied with a tongue-lolling grin. “And if thou wilt have me, I would be thy mate, and sire thy litter.”
“I know I am not comely,” the Grey said, suddenly abashed, crouching and lowering her muzzle to her paws. “I desire no one’s pity, not even the pity of a god.”
“Thou art my rescuer,” Tioreth replied, “and therefore comely in my eyes. And I grant this boon not out of pity at thy sad estate, but in order that thy courage and loyalty may forever run in they children, and mine.”
“How wouldst a Power such as thyself father my pups, if thou and thy true Mistress must depart?” she asked.
“As would any father,” Tioreth replied. “For I shall not depart the world, although the Powers must leave. I and all of my brothers and sisters shall remain and sustain the Kindred against the Dark. And my mistress too, for she has been imprisoned on her high peak since before the first rising of the Lantern, and may not depart hence, until the last day, when the mountains are sundered, and earth and sea and time come to an end.”
“As for thy children,” he continued, “I will watch over and protect them not only as their father, but also as their chief. For this day I claim the mastery that fell with Mordakris. Henceforth I, Tioreth, am Lord of Wolves.” And as he spoke, azure light blazed from his eyes, and the air of the blood-slicked battlefield rang as with the blazoning of trumpets, and all of the wolves of Anuru heard and howled as one; and it was done.
“And what of my kin, that cleave still unto Bardan?” the Grey asked.
“They must remain in Darkness until our children bring them into the light,” Tioreth replied, “but any who come to the light will have a new Lord that will love them, verily, as his own children. And thy children that are mine also shall be the first among them, from now until the breaking of the world.”
As the Watcher observed from the mists, the two wolves left the field of battle, and loped off into the woods. And seen from his great height, it seemed to the watcher that though the world crumbled around them, and a rising tide of blood drowned the grass, yet the burning trees were extinguished in their path, and bloomed green and new again as they passed; and the eyes, coats and even the broad paws of both wolves lit the night, flickering with a hint of azure flame as they vanished into the wold.
* * * * *
Another slept nearby that night. But it was a restless sleep, plagued with dark dreams; and as she shared the dreams of the others, so did they share hers.
* * * * *
Cold. So cold.
She shivered once, and, as a dam breaking, the involuntary trembling began. Once started it wouldn’t stop, and she shook helplessly, teeth chattering.
After a seeming eternity, the shaking subsided. She had just begun to breathe normally again when a sudden, sharp pain struck her in the midsection, and she curled into a ball, clutching her abdomen and retching helplessly. Rough stone scraped and scored her skin whenever she shifted position, but she was barely conscious of the irritation; all she knew was the cold, and the nausea, and the pain.
The spasm subsided, and she opened her eyes, and winced as a dim light struck them. Glancing around with cautious movements, fearful that the nausea might return, she took stock of her surroundings. She lay curled on her right side on a flagged stone floor in a small, low-ceilinged room. Piles of damp, mouldy straw lay scattered here and there, displaced by her convulsions. She raised a hand to her eyes and saw that the nails were broken and her knuckles scratched and torn. Her fingers were stained brown with dried blood.
Breathing in short pants to fight the waves of agony stabbing at her midriff, she rolled carefully to her left side. A row of heavy barrels lay racked against the wall, festooned with cobwebs, exuding a stale, sour odour of ale long gone over. At one end of the room was a low, ironbound wooden door with a grilled window; at the other, nothing but a blank wall. The light, she noticed, came from a low baked clay saucer containing a tallow dip, filling the room with a putrid miasma of smoke. The stench of burning fat clutched at her throat and turned her stomach.
She struggled to a sitting position, and the retching struck her again. Squinting against the agony, she glanced down and saw that she was still in her shift, but that it was torn in places, and stained with dirt and yet more blood. A great deal of blood, in fact. Moving slowly and cautiously lest the nausea overwhelm her, she examined herself, and discovered, somewhat to her surprise, that she was uninjured. Placing a hand on one of the barrels, she shifted to a kneeling position. Her movement dislodged something and a pile of white sluiced to the floor. Retrieving it, she saw that she held a pristine silk gown, trimmed with magnificent white fur. She shrugged into it against the chill and tremors. In her unsettled state, she found its exquisite slickness repulsive.
She tottered unsteadily to her feet, bending her neck slightly to avoid cracking her skull on the low ceiling. The pain struck her in the stomach again, and she had to clutch one of the barrels grimly to avoid being felled by an uncontrollable wave of retching. As the fit passed and her breathing returned, she groped for her medallion, only to find it missing.
Not unexpected, she thought to herself. But faith lies in the faithful. She eased herself to one knee and uttered a brief prayer to the Allfather for strength and healing.
Nothing. Darkness, and silence, and cold. A vast, yawning, vacant pit...
Her eyes flew open in a panic, the nausea all but forgotten. She had reached for the comfort of her master, the Lord of Fist and Faith, and had felt naught but emptiness. No indulgence; no denial; neither anger nor sadness. Nothing at all.
She collapsed sobbing to the floor, consumed with terror and grief. Not since her consecration ten years past had this happened to her; not once since she had been sealed to the service of the Allfather had she felt for his grace, and been left groping, alone and in the dark. Her tears mingled with the dust and dried blood on her cheeks and fell to the floor, where they spread and were swallowed by the thirsty stones.
How long she lay there she did not later recall, but the tallow dip was guttering when at last she raised her head again. As if by divine providence, her eye fell on the black iron of the door-handle at the end of the low room. Dangling from it was the silver chain she had borne for the whole of her service. And at the end of the chain lay her medallion, the silver of the Allfather’s Anvil in bright contrast to the silver-eyed black raven, his companion. Choking back her sobs, She smiled in relief and struggled to her knees. The spasms clutching at her mercilessly, but she fought them down. She crawled quickly to the door and reached out her hand.
A deafening crack; a blinding flash of light. She scarcely had time to shriek in agony as she was flung backwards, crashing into the racked barrels. She felt searing, killing pain in her head and neck as they struck the wood. Riddled with dry rot, the ancient racks collapsed and the heavy tuns rolled free, barely missing her where she lay, stunned and bleeding amid the wreckage. Groaning in agony, she lay still, feeling the back of her skull. Her fingers came away sticky with blood. At the smell, the pangs struck her again, and she doubled over once more in agony.
What’s happening to me? she wondered, terrified and lost. She looked back at the door. The amulet still hung from the latch, swinging slowly from left to right. An eldritch shimmer seemed to surround it in the failing light of the tallow lamp, and she could see blackened streaks of soot on the door behind it. She glanced at her right hand, and saw that although the flesh of her first three fingertips was blackened and blistered, she felt no pain.
No pain, she thought dully, as the internal agony and nausea struck her again. The spasms doubled her up into a tight ball on the floor. Clutching her midriff, she shrieked, “Why? Why, Father!?” And as she lay shaking and shuddering on the icy stone floor, the lamp guttered a final time...and went out.
* * * * *
Some time later, she heard the stealthy, surreptitious patter of tiny feet. Motionless, she opened her eyes. To her surprise, the room seemed lit softly, as though by an unseen lamp shedding moonbeams of purest silver. Despite the darkness, she could see clearly the fallen barrels, the cold, hard walls, the solid, iron-bound wood of the door...and the implacable, glimmering sheen of her medallion, immobile now in the inky blackness.
And something else. A silken grey shadow flitted past her view, and still motionless, she watched it approach her out-flung arm. The eldritch, silvery illumination glinted off its stiff, bristly whiskers and hard, lifeless eyes. Tentatively, even as she watched, the rat edged cautiously closer and closer still. She felt more than saw its whiskers dip to her hand, felt more than saw the warm, damp nostrils against her icy flesh, and felt more than saw its hot, moist tongue flicking against the dried blood on her fingertips. The rat’s ministrations quickly grew more persistent as it laboured to retrieve every last crimson stain from her chill, pale hand.
Feeling slow warmth beginning to penetrate the stabbing ache in her midsection, she smiled in the silver-tinged darkness. Attuned to the slightest motions of its prey, the rat stiffened suddenly, and turned to flee. But she was faster. Oh so much faster! She lashed out and snatched the creature in mid-stride with a gesture so rapid as to seem magical. Shifting smoothly into a sitting position, she raised the diminutive predator to her face and stared into its black, bead-like orbs. She could feel its tiny heart racing against her fingertips, and its hot breath washed over her, bringing with it the sharp, penetrating scent of blood.
With a lightning dip of her head, she drove her teeth into the rat’s soft underbelly, tearing through the fur and skin and gouging into its pulsating viscera. A jet of ichor so hot it seemed to steam in the icy air of the chamber splashed against her cheek, but she ignored it, concentrating on sucking the vital fluids from the tiny animal’s body, savouring their incomparable sweetness as the animal struggled, squirmed and finally expired. The stabbing pain in her midsection vanished instantaneously, replaced by a blossoming pleasure that swept outwards, reaching from to head and toe, lighting every fibre of her being with crimson-stained satiety until she felt that she would burst into flame from the searing ecstasy of it.
In a moment, the rat was an empty husk. She tossed it absently aside and licked the remaining blood from her fingers. The rat’s blood mingled with her own, and she found that she could easily differentiate between the two by the subtleties of taste. The tide of sanguinary pleasure was still roaring through her being when she strode to the door. She reached out and contemptuously yanked the medallion from the latch, snapping the chain.
“Ten years,” she breathed, and was surprised to discover that her voice had taken on a complex, exotic timbre. “Ten years of passionless service, of denying myself, of working for the betterment of others. Ten years of kneeling on cold stones, of slaking my hunger with ashes and my thirst with dust. Ten years of living as a dog among sheep.” She raised the amulet to her eyes, and saw, reflected in the silver of the Allfather’s Anvil, the white, empty, soulless orbs that they had become. She, Deacon of the Shrine of the White, Hand of the Allfather, contemplated her master’s sigil for a moment, then spat careful on it. Fresh blood and saliva mingled and stained the silver. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of her mind, she felt a heavy, resonant crash, as of a door slamming shut, and she grinned, her teeth long and white against the stained incarnadine of her lips. For did not the Allfather say that every closing door opened another? With a snarl, she hurled the amulet into a corner.
The hard, ironbound wood of the door shivered in its frame as she struck it a crushing blow. And again. And again. She clubbed the door repeatedly, smiling wolfishly as the splinters tore at her knuckles, knowing that the damage would heal itself in mere moments. But confinement was unthinkable. She howled in fury until dust and spiders fell from the cracks in the ceiling stones...
...and then she smiled. Drawing herself to her full height, her arms extended as if in preparation for a prayer she would never again utter, she laughed...a silvery tinkle of a laugh...
...and dissolved into smoky nothingness.
The white fox-fur robe hung motionless in the air for three beats of a still, silent heart. Then it fluttered silently to the floor.
* * * * *