First appearances are deceiving. No one is what they seem.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
The deer staggered under the impact of the heavy war spear. He regained his balance then stood for a moment as if confused about which way to run. Storm didn’t give him time to decide. With an exultant shout, he burst from the bushes and flung himself on the stag, slashing savagely with his boot knife.
His quarry lurched under this new impact as the heavy barbarian landed on his back. He recovered quickly, flinging his head viciously from side to side. Storm sucked in his breath with a hiss as the antlers gored his left shoulder. His grip loosened and he felt himself starting to slide. He scrambled madly and his foot found purchase on the spear embedded in the deer, who bleated in sudden pain. Before he could do anything else, Storm lashed out with blinding speed, tearing open the jugular then leaped away, wincing with pain as the shock of landing jarred his wounded shoulder.
Although the stag was clearly dying now, he danced back as it staggered forward several steps before surrendering to the inevitable. It dropped, quivered a time or two then was still.
Storm grinned. A stag this size would feed him for days.
His grin faded however as he surveyed his wound. Attacking with his knife had been foolish. One of the first lessons he’d learned as a child in this world was that even a timid animal will fight like a dragon when cornered. Living here in the civilized south was making him careless. He was lucky to get off so cheaply, with nothing more than a wounded shoulder – it could have been his throat.
Striding back to the bushes where he’d been hiding he stuck in a long arm and pulled out a battered backpack. Pawing through it he pulled out his medicine pouch. Spreading it open revealed the herbs, compresses, and bandages that made up the normal field kit of a T’thalian soldier, left over from his short stint fighting alongside their army as a mercenary. Washing his wound, he applied them with quick, practiced movements.
At more than four cubits and a span in height, Storm was three talents weight of pure muscle and power. His skin was bronzed from years in the sun. His shoulder length, black hair moved gently in the breeze as he dressed out the fallen deer. His short beard lent his face a rugged aspect but couldn’t hide his evident intelligence. He was dressed in the normal attire of his barbarian tribe to the north – leather vest, pants and high laced boots. Steel bracers covered his wrists and forearms. A great hand-and-a-half sword, sometimes known as a bastard sword, dangled at his side; the brilliant sapphire set in the pommel matched his piercing, blue eyes.
By sunset, the deer had been expertly butchered. Small strips of meat hung drying over the fire while Storm tore at a thick steak, his strong teeth ripping off huge hunks of meat that he washed down with enormous pulls at his wine skin. His war-horse, a bay stallion, stood guard just beyond the fire. Specter’s flashing hooves and vicious teeth promised certain, painful death to anyone foolish enough to approach without his master’s consent.
As Storm hung new strips of meat over the fire he reflected that the stag hadn’t really fought like a dragon but allowing himself to be wounded by it showed how far he’d drifted from the upbringing of his adopted barbarian family, the Bear Clan.
Situated on the lower slopes of the great Rampart Mountains that spanned the northern edge of Gaia, the Bear Clan roamed the mountains less than a hundred leagues northwest of the Shimmerwood where the elves of old still held power, creating many things of art and beauty.
He’d been found 24 years ago, lying on a rock in the midst of the worst summer storm anyone could ever remember. He’d been just a year old when Vamer and Nadia found him crying in the pounding wind, rain, and lightning. For 40 years Nadia had been barren and she saw him as a gift from the gods to ease the pain of an empty womb. Vamer, despairing of a son to follow in his footsteps, had agreed to raise the squalling infant as their own and they named him after the storm that was raging around him.
Storm learned quickly as he grew, so quickly it was almost as if he was remembering old skills rather than learning them afresh. He excelled at hand-to-hand combat, besting everyone who raised a hand against him, often with new and unusual moves no one had ever seen before. Others saw the moves he invented and wanted to learn them. Then, it was discovered he was also a natural leader and teacher, eagerly showing the other children his new techniques.
When he was barely able to walk, Vamer began training him to fight with sword, spear, and bow. He was an indifferent bowman at best but he soon displayed an innate ability with spears of all kinds, especially throwing spears. He practiced every day, over and over again until he could bring down a rabbit on the run or spear a bird in flight. When he’d been with them 12 years, he used his spears to bring down one of the great northern bears that roamed the mountains. Killing the fierce beast for which the Clan was named was a powerful omen and the chief said he was destined for great things.
Swordplay was where he truly excelled though. From the first time he held a sword in tiny pudgy hands, it seemed to be an extension of his arm. He always knew exactly where the point was, how the edges were angled, the strength of the metal, and the speed of the blade. As he grew and used progressively larger swords with equal ease and proficiency, Vamer’s heart swelled with pride. Storm became his son in every respect.
He taught him to hunt and fish. Strong and overlarge for his age, he was clumsy at first but challenges inspired him to constantly improve. Under Vamer’s tutelage he learned the silent patience of the predator that could crouch motionless for hours then explode into furious action at the sight of prey. Like the great northern bears, he learned to turn over logs for the insects that lived under them and Vamer showed him how to scoop fish out of the water with his bare hands. His senses grew sharper with each passing day. He learned to track his prey for hours by scent alone. His ears could pick up the slightest movement in the forest. Like the wolves, he could run for hours without tiring. With Vamer leading him, he soon became every inch the savage barbarian legend painted his people to be.
Nadia loved him as only a mother could, from the moment she found him. Every question he asked, she answered or found the answer to. When he asked about The Six, the gods of Gaia, she told him they were the survivors of the Chaos Wars that had nearly destroyed Gaia at the end of the First Age when the many minor gods who had fled Elder Earth to create this new world, fought to the death for supremacy over it. When he named it the universe of g-minor, for the minor gods who created it, she laughed at his joke in spite of its blasphemous nature. Later, when he angrily dismissed The Six as monsters who should be destroyed, she defended him and kept the chief from banishing him from the Clan.
He was raised by the Clan but it soon became obvious he was not of the Clan. He spurned their savage interpretation of pride and had a sense of fair play entirely missing from their heritage. As he grew older he began to display a stubborn independent streak that led him into conflict with the Vamer and the other men, questioning the way things were done, assuming he was always right and they were always wrong. The fact this was often the case, served to anger rather than win them over. Arguments between him and Vamer became an everyday occurrence, especially once it was clear Vamer could no longer overpower him physically.
Countering the anger he stirred among the men was his unusual generosity when someone was in trouble. He was always the first to offer a helping hand to the less fortunate or donate food and clothing to those who had none. When a child broke through the ice and plunged into the icy waters of a mountain lake, it was Storm who dove in and pulled her to safety, spurning any reward from her grateful parents. Despite his heroism, the incident only served to highlight his increasing strangeness because no one in the Clan could swim and he couldn’t explain how he’d learned.
It was Nadia who, against all odds, kept him in the Clan until the summer of his fifteenth year but even her love couldn’t hold him forever.
It was an ordinary hunting trip that finally caused the breach. Storm was with Vamer and a large hunting party. They’d brought down three bull moose, enough meat to feed the clan for days, when Storm gave a casual order to one of the men four times his age. Claymon resented a youth of just 15 trying to give him orders and gave Storm a shove to push him out of the way. Storm’s volcanic temper erupted and he attacked. Before Claymon knew what was happening, Storm had him on the ground with a knife at his throat. His anger subsided as quickly as it rose and he let the man up but the damage was done.
Claymon angrily demanded that Vamer make Storm apologize. When Storm refused, he and Vamer came to blows with the same result as with Claymon, Vamer found himself on the ground with a knife at his throat.
Storm let him up then cut himself a hunk of meat from the carcasses and took off into the forest. The men assumed he was going back to the clan but when they arrived at sunset, he was nowhere to be found.
The Clan never saw him again.
Shortly after leaving the clan, he came across a trade caravan camped for the night on the banks of a river. At first, he’d thought to raid them for weapons and food. Reason asserted itself quickly though. Caravans traveled through dangerous territory all the time, prepared for trouble at a moment's notice. If he was discovered, armed guards and trained dogs would be set upon him. He was powerful but only one man.
He decided to try joining them instead.
The next morning a startled caravan leader found a half-naked barbarian crouched beside the fire warming his hands, weapons laid carefully out of reach in an obvious attempt at peace. The grizzled old man was impressed at the stealth that let him into camp undetected and the bravery that made him stay to face the consequences of his actions. He crouched beside the barbarian youth to speak to him at length.
When the caravan left that morning, Storm went with it.
He worked first as a general hand, chopping wood, hunting food, caring for the horses, loading and unloading wagons. Soon he became a night guard. Building on what Vamer had taught him, he learned to wield a sword in a school where failure meant instant death. He picked up some scars but they were few and far between. His intelligence, unusual in a barbarian, made him a quick study. He learned everything they shoved at him. His savage upbringing and natural prowess lent him a speed and stamina that was the envy of everyone, and the bane of his enemies. In battle, he easily wielded in one hand, weapons that lesser men must wield with two. He trained himself to use a dagger or short sword in his left hand while swinging his regular sword in his right, a style of fighting which baffled his many opponents.
His fighting skill soon earned him great renown among the caravan leaders who traveled the trade routes throughout the north and the east. They began struggling to outbid each other for his services for no caravan had ever fallen while he rode with it. He was given command of great numbers of soldiers. With authority came responsibility and the need to read and write. He learned quickly and was given still greater responsibility.
He rode in caravans that visited all the great cities up and down the shores of the Overdark Ocean. He rode through the streets of inland cities as well, reaching as far west across the River Lands as Sairaw, known as the City of the Winds, on the southern tip of the Sorgo Mountains that came down from the mighty Ramparts and south to Nahor, on the shores of Namak Lake and across the great plains of the Biqah, which the tribes there pronounced bĕ-kä'. He'd even become blood brothers with Crowsotarri, the chieftain of one of the many Biqah tribes (the prairie folk took their name from the land, so Biqah meant both the prairie and the people). For ten years he traveled with first one caravan then another until his purse was heavy with coin.
Then in the T’thalian Empire, he'd nearly joined their army when they went to war with their ancient enemy, Carrzulm. The island empire depended heavily on the annual whale harvest to support their teeming cities while the corrupt Carrzulmans killed them only for the perfumes they could make from the scent glands. It was a war which had been fought many times before, and as always, both sides paid handsomely for mercenaries who could turn the tide of battle. His purse was filled to overflowing after a mere handful of battles.
All in all, Storm reflected as he hung more meat over the fire, he’d seen more of Gaia than any ten men put together. His current mission, to lead a small caravan from Zered to Robling, the capital of Ingold, was a bit of a milk run for him. The mountain kingdom was heavily traveled by most caravans and well known to him; he’d been through it many times. What was intriguing was the princely sum he’d been offered; one hundred gold coins, usually known as crowns. At the standard exchange rates, it worked out to 5000 copper pieces. Since most inns charged 5 coppers for dinner and a night’s lodging, it meant he could afford to live high on the hog for over two-and-a-half years without lifting so much as a finger! It made him wonder what was so important – or dangerous. Not that he really cared; he’d lived with danger his whole life. He could handle it, assuming he didn’t get killed by the first rabbit he encountered along the way, he chuckled ruefully to himself.
Over the next several days he sought out wild boars, even a bear, polishing up long unused woodland skills. He ran through the mountains with Specter at his heels, pushing himself to the limit. By the time he rode down out of the Coast Mountains he once more felt confident of his ability to handle himself and his surroundings. In high spirits he approached Zered for his next assignment, steadfastly ignoring the still small voice that argued he was wasting his life doing the same thing over and over again – just like before.
Zered was a fair sized city, typical for this part of Gaia, perched on a low cliff overlooking the Tambar River where it tumbled out of the mountains in an icy flood. Fields of corn and wheat surrounded the city, coming right up to the cut block, granite walls. A well-traveled road cut through the fields. Following it he came to the city gates. Guards posted there eyed him curiously but made no move to stop him. Lone barbarians were rare this far south and were usually regarded as curiosities rather than threats. Besides, the last ten years made him appear more the sell-sword than the barbarian.
Inside he was assaulted by the hustle and bustle of the city. He stared openly at the sights, ignoring people who stared at him in return. After the quiet solitude of the mountains, the city seemed to ring with noise. Vendors cried their wares to anyone who came near while children played and shouted underfoot. Spicy odors wafted through the streets from the open doors of shops and inns. Musicians played on street corners, hoping to impress passersby with their talent, and perhaps earn a few coins. Carts and wagons, piled high with a thousand bundles and crates blocked the way while their drivers hurled colorful oaths at each other in particular, and the populace in general. Gaudy colors ran riot as if each person sought to out dress the next. Bemused, Storm shook his head. City living had never had any appeal for him. Why would anyone choose to live in one, he wondered?
Nudging Specter out of the traffic he reined in at the side of the street to examine the map he’d been given, trying to match the confusion around him to the scratching on the parchment.
Before leaving Vaneer he’d made known his intention of heading west. He’d been contacted by a man who worked for a merchant named Sodan, who lived in Zered and was sending a small caravan to Ingold on private and likely, dangerous business. His reputation must have proceeded him for he’d been offered the position at once. He’d been given the map, a letter of introduction, and instructions that if he could be at Sodan’s by the middle of the month his place on the caravan was assured.
Following the map, he soon left the business district and found himself wending his way through the wealthier neighborhoods. His presence here was regarded with suspicion for he obviously didn’t belong. A curving street ended at a large, ornate building. Guards in heavy plate armor regarded him darkly as he approached. He swung down out of the saddle to put them at ease. One of the guards, a tall, dark-haired man, advanced to meet him.
A gauntleted hand barred his path. “What’s your business?”
Storm stopped. “I was told that I could find employment on a caravan going to Ingold,” he said. “Ryman gave me this map and letter of introduction,” he added, holding them up.
The guard held out his hand. “Let me see them.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Thomas Keener, Sergeant of the Guard. Hand them over!” he snapped.
Storm hesitated, then passed the papers over with a shrug.
Thomas studied them intently for a minute, hazel eyes moving quickly. “Looks alright,” he finally conceded, “but I want to check it out first. Gregory! Keep an eye on him. The rest of you too.” He disappeared into the building.
A man of indeterminate age, most likely Gregory, moved forward to take Thomas’ place but said nothing. None of the others seemed disposed to talk, and Storm was never one to engage in mindless chatter, so they simply stood there looking at each other in the morning sun.
He was already beginning to sweat as the sun climbed the sky and he wondered at the guards in their bulky armor. How did they stand it in the afternoon heat? If Sodan wanted him to wear plate armor the deal was off. He’d rather fight a dragon than climb into one of those clanking sweat boxes. He’d worn heavy armor a time or two in the past and hated it with a passion.
After twenty minutes or so the door opened abruptly and Thomas came out, followed by an unusually handsome man in brown robes who spoke in a pleasant tenor.
“My uncle wishes to speak to you at once. Please come with me,” he said. “Thomas will stable your horse for you.”
Storm nodded, more at ease now. He gave Specter’s reins to the lanky sergeant. “Don’t try to ride him,” he warned. “He’ll tear your throat out.”
“I know the type,” Thomas smiled ruefully.
Storm smiled back, liking the tall guard in spite of his earlier manner. He turned and followed the robed man into the house as Thomas led Specter away. Once inside he examined his guide more closely. He was of medium height, perhaps in his mid-thirties with brown hair and eyes. His hair was well kept though somewhat long. In contrast to most men of the day, his face was hairless, making his features look strangely thin. Above his eyes, his thin eyebrows were arched just enough to be noticeable. The richly appointed foyer in which they stood was well lighted and Storm saw lines of care worn on the man’s face.
“This way,” he said, indicating a flight of stairs. “Sodan has heard much about you from Rogar and is most anxious to meet you.”
Storm nodded absently. Rogar had been one of the better caravan leaders he’d worked for, hard but fair. His recommendation was a pleasure.
They topped the stairs and turned down a wide hallway.
“I, by the way,” the man continued, “am Ralt Gaither, Sodan’s nephew and wizard.”
Storm slammed to a halt in sudden shock. A wizard!?
Revulsion swept through him as ingrained reflexes against the Dark Arts had his sword in his hand almost before he was aware of it. Ralt must have heard or sensed something amiss, for he leapt aside a moment before Storm’s blade swept down on the place where he’d been standing. Angrily he incanted, his hands making strange passes through the air.
Storm sensed power hurdling toward him and bellowed as he threw himself aside. He wasn’t fast enough and part of it caught his leg. It went numb beneath him, refusing to work, sending him crashing into the wall. He heaved himself upright to continue the fight, lurching forward to behead his enemy with a single stroke of his sword but Ralt evaded him easily. The wizard began chanting another spell. Snarling defiance Storm hurled his sword at him in a flat spin, forcing Ralt to duck. The wizard’s concentration on his spell was lost along with the spell itself. Storm whipped out his short sword with a savage laugh. Feeling began to return to his leg as his incredible recuperative powers went to work. Brandishing the sword he crouched to spring.
The deep voice boomed in the hallway, startling him. He froze, searching for the source.
Behind the wizard a large set of double doors at the end of the hallway stood open, framing a short, impossibly wide man. Beside him was an elderly man dressed in expensive robes.
Ralt glanced over his shoulder at the short man in evident relief. “Durin! Get out here! This idiot is trying to kill me!”
Durin rumbled laughter through his beard, “Small wonder. He’s a northern barbarian.”
Ralt was outraged. “And that excuses murder?” he hissed.
Durin shook his block-like head as he and the old man came down the hall. “Of course not. But those evil wizards, magicians, and sorcerers that now and then we’ve been unable to kill, but only drive out of the land, usually go north. Those workers of the Black Arts are the only ones Storm and his kind have ever known. Put yourself in his position,” he advised. “With a history like that, is it any wonder he attacked you?”
Ralt scowled down at him, not entirely convinced. “How sad; my deepest sympathies and all that. But what if he’d succeeded in killing me before you got here? You didn’t see how fast he is!”
“Rogar did not lie then,” the old man murmured.
Durin glanced up at him. “As I tried to tell you,” he rumbled.
The old man dropped a hand on Durin’s shoulder. “Stand easy old friend. I seldom fail to heed your advice as you well know.”
Durin nodded and started to speak but Storm had had enough. “What is all this?” he demanded, straightening up from his fighting stance.
“A thousand pardons,” the old man exclaimed. “I’m Sodan, called the Fairhand, master of this establishment. Durin here is my chief adviser, and Captain of the Guard. My nephew Ralt, well, you’ve already, umm, met.” Durin and Ralt bowed formally.
Storm ignored the wizard. “What were you saying about driving all the wizards to the north?” he asked Durin.
Durin shrugged shoulders that were more appropriate for someone Storms size. “Not all of them; just the bad ones.”
“What other kind is there?” Storm snorted in disgust.
Ralt bristled at the insult but Durin ignored him. “Good or evil is in the man, not the magic. Magic is nothing more than a tool, like a plow or a sword.” He bent down. “Speaking of which,” he straightened, “here’s yours. Better put it away,” he advised as he handed it over.
Sodan and Ralt tensed as Storm held both swords for a moment, then let out their breath as he slid them into their scabbards with a scrap of metal on metal.
“Well!” Sodan said brightly, clapping his hands together, “now that that’s all settled, shall we retire to my study to finish this conversation in more comfortable surroundings? And you men can return to your posts,” he added, nodding to someone behind Storm.
Storm turned. Behind him were more than a dozen men lowering powerful crossbows. Hmm, he thought, odd these city dwellers might be, but the guards certainly knew their business. He had no idea how long they’d been there, and he hadn’t heard them approach. Impressive. He made a mental note not to underestimate Sodan’s men.
Storm followed Sodan down the hall, keeping a wary eye on Ralt. Durin’s assurances were all very nice but he’d heard entirely too many stories of horror to feel comfortable around anyone who practiced magic. If Sodan wanted to keep one around that was his business but he made up his mind to have nothing to do with the wizard.
They entered a large well-appointed room that was perhaps forty cubits long by thirty cubits wide. At one end a large fireplace crackled and popped, ringed by overstuffed chairs, a small table standing by each one. The center of the room was dominated by a tinkling fountain surrounded by leather bound couches and low tables. At the far end, opposite the fireplace was a tremendous desk, lit by hanging lamps and sunlight pouring in through windowed doors which led to a large balcony overlooking a central courtyard. The walls were lined with bookcases and small potted plants. Despite its size, the room had a comfortable feel to it, redolent with the smell of fine leather and lemon scented wood.
Sodan led them to the couches. They all sat, giving Storm an opportunity to scrutinize his companions. Durin was barely three-and-a-third cubits tall, his curly hair and beard matching his snapping, black eyes. His shoulders were abnormally wide for someone of his stature. He was barrel-chested, his arms and legs heavily muscled. His skin was a deep chestnut brown and his face had a peculiar set to it Storm had never seen.
Sodan, by contrast, was tall and lean. Like Ralt (the family resemblance was now obvious) he was brown-eyed and fair skinned. His short hair and beard, once brown, were shot through with gray. Storm judged him to be some years past middle age, but well preserved.
Servants brought in cool drinks and tobacco. Storm hadn’t had a chance to buy any in Vaneer and had missed his after-dinner pipe. All of them lit up and soon wreaths of aromatic smoke filled the air.
“I have no doubt about your skill in combat,” Sodan began, “but I do have a few concerns. If I take you on the trip to Ingold, you will be working with Ralt. Can you overcome your prejudice, understandable though it is, for the duration of our journey?”
Storm’s eyes narrowed as he considered it. “You said ‘working with him’. Exactly what does that mean?”
“A fair question. Durin?”
“I have to stay here to oversee business while Sodan is gone,” he rumbled. “While my men are good enough in the city, I fear for them in the wilds beyond. Many sections of the road have fallen into a sad state. Several small villages along the way have been destroyed by highwaymen and monsters of various sorts. Manticores live in the Ridge Mountains, not to mention wolves coming down from the higher elevations as winter approaches. The men need someone leading them who is used to that sort of thing. Who better than a barbarian?”
Storm shifted in his seat. He didn’t bother mentioning he was a barbarian only by adoption, there was no need, but he knew all about the road to Ingold from previous trips; it had steadily degraded as the years went by. Between Manticores and wolves, he wasn’t sure which was worse. He’d dealt with both before and didn’t care for either of them. “Fine. But where does the wizard come into it?” His appraisal of Durin went up another notch. If Sodan felt safe enough to leave his house and fortune in his care while he was gone, he was a formidable opponent indeed.
“Ralt will be responsible for the cargo, while you will be in charge of physical security. He can also give warning of approaching danger. Some of his long-distance spells are quite good.”
Storm was puzzled. “Physical security? What other kind is there?”
“Ahem,” Ralt cleared his throat. Storm reluctantly gave him his attention. “I believe I can answer that.” He looked at Sodan who nodded silently. “The cargo as Durin puts it is not your usual pots and pans sort of thing, or even gold and jewels. It’s something much more precious – Sodan’s daughter. Well, her body at any rate.”
“Uh, sort of.”
“Hunh?” Storm stared at him. “How can she be sort of dead. You either are or you aren’t.” That was, as the saying went, elementary.
“Krista is actually my granddaughter but I’ve raised her since my son and daughter-in-law died when she was less than a month old. She recently became deathly ill,” Sodan said quietly. “The closest person capable of curing her is Lamriack, a very powerful priest in the service of the Lord of Light. Lamriack lives in Robling, the capital of Ingold. But Krista would never have survived the journey; it’s too long. So, Ralt arranged to have her soul removed from her body and placed in a special container . . .” He trailed off into grieving silence.
“Her body,” Ralt continued for him, “went into a death-like state where it does not age and the illness is stopped. The moment her soul returns to her body the illness will recommence and soon kill her. But only when body and soul are one can she be cured.”
Storm was aghast.
That meddling fool?
He’d first met the priest when he appeared to be seven years old, at a summer festival put on by the horse tribes of the Biqah. The Bear Clan went southwest every year to trade furs for weapons and armor. It was a combination trade fair and festival that left the children free to wander through the myriad stalls put up by the countless vendors. In one of the many public tents, he’d come upon a young priest conducting a naming ceremony for a Biqah child. Fascinated, he’d hung around to watch.
After the ceremony, the priest glanced over at him then did a double take. Lamriack had stared at him as if he was some bizarre freak. Storm sensed Lamriack could tell what he was, or more accurately, wasn’t, and quickly become uncomfortable under the priest’s quizzical gaze. Throughout the rest of the festival, Lamriack kept seeking him out, trying to talk to him, always with that same puzzled, questioning look. The next year Lamriack had been accompanied by an older priest, pointing Storm out to him. The older man had the same reaction as Lamriack. They’d hounded him throughout that year’s festival, as well as the next, and the one after that as well.
Now he had to deal with Lamriack all over again, as well as a devious wizard? Lamriack was one of the many reasons he didn’t permit anyone to talk about religion when he was around. He ground his teeth in frustration. Did he really want this job after all? “Do we have to be there when Lamriack does his voodoo?”
Ralt hesitated at the unfamiliar term, but Storm’s sneering tone made his meaning crystal clear. “No,” he answered slowly. “Anyone can return Krista’s soul to her body. Merely open the container and they will join together on their own. As for curing her illness, he can do that whether we’re there or not.”
“Then why do you need to come along?” Storm pressed him hotly.
“Because there might be others who wish to inhabit her body,” Ralt replied seriously. “Perhaps some poor soul who died young and wishes to live again. There are any number of possibilities. Then too, her soul is at risk. It’s possible that a demon from Hell might notice her exposed condition and try to drag her soul down to Hell. It’s to guard against such things that I must go.”
Though the study was warm, Storm shivered in supernatural fear. He might not believe in the gods of Gaia, The Six, and all their theological baggage, but deep down in his heart, he knew that whatever they really were, they were still out there. Fighting Manticores and wolves was one thing. Such battles had been part of his daily existence for the past ten years. But . . . a demon? A real demon from Hell? He couldn’t get his mind around it. “You’re going to guard against that?”
Ralt nodded somberly.
“What happens if a demon actually shows up?” Just saying it sent another shiver down his spine.
“Then I’ll fight it the best I can,” Ralt told him.
“And if you lose?”
The wizard locked brown eyes with his blue ones. “In that case,” he swallowed hard, “Krista and I will be damned to Hell for all eternity.”
“How did I let myself get talked into this mess?” Storm cursed as he tightened the straps on Specter’s saddle.
Thomas, leaning against the doorway, grinned at him. “You’re a sucker for a sob story, Cap’em.”
Storm glowered at his lanky second-in-command, “Yeah? So what’s your excuse?”
“I’m a free-booting adventurer Cap’em. I go where the wind blows me.”
“Terrific.” Storm waved him away. “Go bother someone else for a while. I’m busy.”
“Yes Sir, Cap’em.” Thomas sketched a salute and sauntered out.
Storm shook his head. The man was an uncanny archer but other than that he was an irresponsible lunatic. His facade as a stern guardsman was strictly for show. Beneath it was a practical joker who enjoyed shocking people with his irreverent attitudes and comments.
Storm still wasn’t sure he wanted this job but it was a little late to back out now. He should have left the moment he learned the wizard would be coming along and he definitely should have backed out when Ralt started talking about demons. His casual assumption of damnation in the event of failure had shaken Storm more than he cared to admit. “Thrice damned” was a curse so old no one knew where it came from, but the prospect of real actual damnation cast it in a whole new light. Ralt’s willingness to face it for a member of his family made a mockery of Storm’s own bravery. The idea that a thrice dam–, a weakling sorcerer, might have more courage than him stuck in his craw. In the end, it had been that more than anything that made up his mind for him. Oh, he’d argued against it and tried to back out several times but they were halfhearted attempts at best. Deep down, he knew he’d take the job even if Sodan hadn’t offered him such an outrageous price. If he lived to collect it he’d be well off.
If he lived.
That was looking more unlikely every day. He had to lead a bunch of greenhorns through several hundred leagues of the roughest terrain Gaia had to offer. It was a lengthy journey. He’d thought it would be a normal caravan of the type he was used to, with a small army of guards at his command. Even a small caravan could command upwards of 50 to 70 guards. Instead, it was a single wagon carrying the body of the sort of dead girl, twelve mounted soldiers, the wizard, and Sodan.
Storm had judged him to be middle-aged or slightly beyond rather than the one hundred and ninety-four that turned out to be the truth. Most people in Gaia lived 200 years or so, which meant Sodan already had one foot in the grave. A hundred and ninety-four-year-old man riding through the countryside in a wagon with winter just around the corner? Insanity!
It was also family. Krista was his granddaughter who he’d raised as his daughter. His love and devotion to her was so great he was willing to risk everything for her. Given his own less than stellar track record on family matters, Storm was willing to give Sodan a pass on it.
Just last night though, they’d received confirmation of not one, but two Manticores up in the Ridge Mountains. Probably a mated pair, which meant they’d be twice as vicious as normal. Manticores were large and heavy, eight full talents of winged fury. If they had young to protect they’d spare no effort in the process, even to the point of suicidal attacks. Like Sodan risking his life for Krista, they’d do anything to protect their young. Anymore of Thomas’ “good news,” Storm reflected and he’d have to hurt somebody, maybe several somebodies.
“Well, Specter, we sure got ourselves into a bad one this time didn’t we?” The big bay whickered reassuringly, nudging his hand for a treat. Storm absently dug out a piece of rock candy for him, lost in thought. He’d spent most of the last few days going over the supply list with Ralt and Thomas. Ralt had marveled over a barbarian who could read and write until Storm sourly reminded him of his years as a guard commander on countless caravans. “With that many men and wagons, you have to be able to read and write just to keep track of everything. No one can memorize that much stuff.”
Ralt nodded agreement. “Of course, of course. I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“Some of your own people might steal you blind if you can’t keep track of your inventory,” Storm continued pedantically. “Or try to pretend they didn’t get paid and come sucking up to you for more money. You’ll go broke in a hurry if you don’t have it written down.” He stopped himself before he said too much.
“Sounds like a chancy way to make a living,” Thomas quipped.
Storm glanced sideways at him. “A man who bets a week’s wages on a single throw of the dice calls caravaning chancy?” Ralt snorted. On this, he and Storm were in perfect agreement. They both detested gambling and regarded as foolish those who indulged in it.
“Those dice were loaded!” Thomas retorted hotly. “If they hadn’t cheated I’d have won. I was on a streak.”
“Spare me,” Storm said quickly, raising a hand. “We’ve already heard the story a hundred times.”
They’d continued on the down the list, adding here, deleting there until Storm was satisfied they hadn’t forgotten anything or taken too much. Three days of work had left them with what he hoped was the right balance.
“Hey, Cap’em! You coming or not?”
The shout jarred him out of his reverie. He waved acknowledgment to Thomas then swung up into the saddle. Specter sidled sideways before settling down, his hooves clattering in the predawn stillness. “Is everyone here?” he asked, looking around.
“They’re all here,” Durin rumbled from his place near the wagon where he was exchanging final partings with Sodan. The short man had turned out to be a Dwarf; a race he’d had heard much about but never met. They were a stout people, doughty fighters who even their enemies respected. If half the tales about them were true he was indeed sorry Durin wouldn’t be coming with them.
Durin grabbed Specter’s reins. “Take care of him,” he said, indicating Sodan, “or I’ll part your hair with an axe.” Sodan was making the trip against Durin’s advice. He’d been at Sodan’s side so long he’d come to regard the old man as a father. Although his voice was light, his eyes betrayed his concern.
Storm nodded. “I’ll guard him as best I can,” he replied soberly.
Durin searched his eyes for a moment more, then sighed heavily, “More I cannot ask. Fare thee well.” He swung away, bellowing orders to open the gates.
The gates before the wagon swung ponderously open. He spurred Specter through to take the lead. Behind him whips cracked over the wagon team, there was a flurry of shouted commands, a jingling of harnesses and the little caravan lurched after him into the darkness. The guards, mounted on light war-horses, closed in on the wagon in double file, Thomas bringing up the rear.
If any of them had thought to look back they would have seen Durin, a black shadow in the torchlight, watching them out of sight like some eldritch carving from a forgotten age.
Storm led his small troop through the quiet streets, surprising an occasional early riser. The grinding wagon wheels and clopping hooves echoed eerily back from the buildings on either side of the narrow street like muted thunder. Even the business district was still. Sleepy guards at the city gates grumbled at the early hour but opened the portals soon enough and they passed out of the city to the open road beyond.
Storm inhaled a huge lung full of clean morning air, crisp with the smell of dew-covered fields. Ah, he thought, this is more like it. The past week living in the city had been torture to his soul. In Vaneer there had at least been clean if cold, sea breezes. Here, behind the high city walls, no breath of fresh air could penetrate. Odors hung stale and heavy in the streets for days on end. He felt as though he’d been released from prison. Once again he wondered how anyone could stand to live in such a place.
The small band moved away from the city, quickly falling into their assigned places. Once beyond the fields surrounding the city, outriders, two to a side, were sent out to give early warning of danger. The men grumbled at these measures while still so close to Zered but Storm insisted. Too often he’d seen supposedly safe areas turn into ambushes. With this small a force he was taking no chances. The minuscule size of his forces had also dictated his decision to take single men only. If there were any losses, he didn’t want to leave behind widows and orphans.
At noon they halted at a small inn to eat. One of the guards, Boldric, was an experienced wagon builder. He checked out the wagon while they ate. It was new and heavily loaded. There had been no time for a shake-down trip to check it for potential weaknesses. If it was going to fail, Storm wanted to find out about it now while there was still time to turn back. Boldric pronounced it fit and they were soon back on the road. Storm was pleased to see the outriders taking their place without prompting.
The road was well traveled along this way and they passed various travelers throughout the day. The terrain about them was a gentle series of wooded foothills descending from the mountains. Dappled sunlight, streaming down through the leaves lit the road while flocks of birds, preparing for their fall migration flitted across their path or chattered angrily at them from the safety of the treetops. The Tambar River chuckled alongside the road, wandering off now and then only to return each time. The air was alive with a thousand different sounds. He drank it all in like a sponge.
Toward evening the road turned sharply to the west. Outside Zered, the North Fork of the Tambar had joined the South Fork to begin its rush to the Overdark Ocean some six hundred leagues to the south around the southern tip of the Coast Mountains. There the Overdark mixed its waters with the eastern portion of the Battle Ocean, the Milchamah. It was here that the great whales wintered with their young. Ships from the far distant Carrzulman Empire to the west, came here, around the Serpent Peninsula, the bulging tip of which was called the Unknown Land, to hunt the young calves for the perfume that could be made from them and sold in the decadent markets of their ancient land.
T’thalian warships followed the whales each year to protect them from the Carrzulman slaughter. T’thalia and her subject islands depended on the annual whale harvest for food and bitterly opposed the killing of calves for perfume. In recent years warships from Carrzulm had met the T’thalians in those waters in open battle.
T’thalia and Carrzulm were ancient enemies and he quickly left their service when it became clear the skirmishing was escalating toward all-out war once again. In Vaneer there had been dark talk of kindred lost in battle and still darker talk of vengeance. Niran, the Imperial Sword Master, had tried to persuade Storm to stay but he wanted no part of someone else’s fight, particularly one which seemed to reoccur every ten or fifteen years.
The Tambar was low this late in the season and sunset found them well away from the road, safely across the river and facing the Plains of Aroon. The outriders had brought down several rabbits during the day and Storm ordered them roasted while poles and fishing nets were brought out. He wanted them to live off the land as much as possible to conserve their meager food supplies. One wagon could carry only so much, and Krista’s “coffin” took up a considerable amount of space. All-in-all, Storm was satisfied with their progress and the conduct of the small group of guards under his command. It had been a good day.
The Tambar yielded a fair catch, enough to fill all the men to bursting. Although Sodan protested that the rough ride in the wagon had not tired him, he soon retired. The others quickly followed suit. Within a short time after eating Storm and Ralt were the only two still awake. Storm had assigned himself first watch but Ralt was under no such obligation.
He looked over at the wizard who was staring pensively into the fire, wishing he would leave him alone. “You should get some sleep,” he said finally. “Tomorrow will be a long day.”
Ralt smiled briefly. “I’m not tired. Driving a wagon doesn’t take much effort, you know.” He craned his head back to look up at the stars. “Besides, it’s rather pretty. Its been so long since I was a kid I’d forgotten how bright the stars are when you get away from the city lights.”
Surprised into continuing the conversation with his unwelcome companion, Storm asked, “Where were you raised that you saw the stars at night?”
“A little village called Crendal, just under a hundred leagues north of Zered. My people were ranchers; raised sheep and cattle mostly. I used to sit up at night with our herds and try to count the stars.” Ralt laughed softly. “I kept losing my place. Couldn’t remember if I’d counted this star or that one.”
Storm stared at him. Ralt certainly wasn’t like any wizard he’d ever heard of! “But . . . why would a rancher want to study the Blac . . . uh, study magic?”
Ralt glanced at him mischievously. “The ‘Black Arts’ you started to say?”
Embarrassed without quite knowing why, Storm nodded.
The wizard smiled, enjoying his embarrassment. “Accident mostly. My mother died giving birth to me and my father blamed me for it. He told me a thousand times if it weren’t for me she’d still be alive. So, my grandfather’s brother, my great uncle” – he jerked a thumb at the wagon where Sodan was sleeping – “invited me to come work for him when I turned ten, but I didn’t know how to read or write, so he hired a wizard to tutor me. Gerald and I spent a lot of time together and, well, one thing led to another. Pretty soon I was a full-blown apprentice.” He shrugged. "My eldest brother inherited everything from my father and Krista was Sodan’s obvious choice to take over when he died, so, I really didn’t have anything else to do.” He shrugged again. “Like I said, accident mostly.”
Storm’s mind whirled with astonishment. Wizards were evil fiends, bent on taking over the world; everyone knew that. But Ralt made magic sound like it was just another job, a way to make a living, like being a merchant or something. He said as much to his strange companion.
Ralt nodded agreement. “In a way that’s just what it is – a job. I’ve heard of one magician down south who uses magic to freeze huge tanks of water into ice. They say he makes a very good living as an ice merchant, especially during the summer.”
Storm abandoned the struggle to contain his surprise and anger. “If magic is just a job what about all those evil murderers who’ve been terrorizing people in the north all these years? Was that just a job too?”
“Of course not,” Ralt retorted gently. “Magicians, wizards, sorcerers; whatever you want to call us, are just people like anyone else. Some are good, some are bad. Some of us are extremely skilled while others are as clumsy as can be. Now and then someone comes along who is thoroughly rotten, evil to the core.” He grinned wickedly. “Just like some warlords are evil; raiding defenseless villages, raping and killing just for the fun of it. Surely you must have encountered some of them during your travels.”
Storm nodded reluctantly. He’d not only encountered some of them, he’d fought them as well. One, in particular, Krekor, had been the meanest, most twisted man he’d ever met. Pillage was too kind a word to describe the destruction he and his men visited on the villages they destroyed. “But at least they fought with honest steel,” he managed finally.
“Really? All the time?” Ralt’s voice was pregnant with feeling.
Even as he spoke Storm remembered a stake-lined pit that had claimed a number of his men. The stakes had been smeared with dung, causing festering wounds, oozing pus, and infection. Two of his men had begged him to kill them to end their pain. He’d done as they asked, sick to his stomach. He shrugged angrily. “OK. So they didn’t always use steel. But at least they didn’t use foul sorcery that gives a man no chance to fight back!”
“Is that your only objection?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
A predator’s smile crossed Ralt’s face and Storm was suddenly wary. “What about you? You did pretty good against me the day we met. You dodged one of my spells and spoiled another. If Durin hadn’t stopped it, you’d have gotten me.” Ralt’s smile broadened. “If that’s not fighting back I don’t know what is.” He rose and brushed himself off as Storm sat gaping at him. “Well, I’d better get some sleep. As you pointed out, tomorrow is going to be a long day.” He climbed into the wagon pulling the flaps shut behind him before Storm could think of a suitable reply.
He sat by the fire scowling fiercely, tugging on his beard. Blast that wizard! His silver tongue was almost as potent as his magic. He twisted everything around until it was inside out. He could make a fish believe it had wings.
He needed something to distract him.
He jumped up to walk his rounds about the camp. It was so small it took him less than a minute and to his chagrin, there was nothing amiss, nothing to occupy him. Grumbling under his breath he returned to the fire. He sat brooding for a long time before finally concluding it would be wise to ignore the wizard as best he could. The man was infernally devious, and far too quick to be trusted. It was a poor victory but he salvaged from it what he could. He woke the next guard, rolled up in his blanket and was soon fast asleep.
A thunder of hooves jerked him awake the next morning. He surged to his feet, flinging his blankets aside, sword already in hand. The sun was beginning to rise, illuminating a squat figure on horseback. He heard a deep rumble of laughter as the figure sawed back on the reins, thudding to a halt beside Storm.
“Ho, Barbarian! Right glad I am to see you too!” Durin shouted joyfully, eyeing Storm’s blade askance. “Is it the custom of your people to greet their friends thus?”
Storm cursed, sheathing his sword. “Is it the custom of your people to come charging into camp without warning like a herd of wild buffalo?”
The dwarf roared laughter as he tumbled down off his horse. “Makes for a grand wake-up call doesn’t it?”
Storm plopped back down on his blankets. He stared sourly at the bright-eyed dwarf. “I thought you supposed to be in Zered,” he yawned hugely, “minding the store or whatever.”
“So did I!”
Sodan climbed down out of the wagon, followed by a sleepy Ralt. “Explain yourself,” the old man snapped, striding forward.
Durin stared back unflinchingly, arm akimbo. “Meredith finally got your letter about Krista. She arrived yesterday afternoon. So, I left her in charge and came to join you.”
Several of the guards, all awake now, snickered at the dwarf’s words. Storm thought he heard one of them mutter something that sounded like ‘dragon lady’. “Who is Meredith?” he demanded.
Sodan sat down slowly. “My youngest sister, half-sister actually, Meredith Finn. She’s, ah, difficult you might say.” Behind him, Ralt rolled his eyes helplessly then disappeared back into the wagon. The old man fixed a beady eye on Durin. “Left her in charge or abandoned her? Tell me the truth.”
Thomas, tousled from sleep, leaned back against one of the horses. “This ought to be interesting,” he yawned.
Durin spread his hands innocently. “Why, when I heard that Meredith had entered the city I –”
“Trembled in fear?” Thomas interjected.
“– wrote her a letter explaining the situation,” the dwarf continued firmly. “Then I gathered my few belongings, saddled a horse, and rode to join you.”
“Snuck out like a thief in the night,” Thomas translated sweetly. The men snickered while Durin glared daggers at the lanky archer.
Sodan saw the question in Storm’s eyes. “Thomas has the truth of it, I’ll warrant,” he sighed. “My sister really can be quite difficult. The men call her ‘the Dragon Lady’ I believe.”
Storm nodded sympathetically. “I know the type.” He turned to regard the dwarf speculatively. Durin was dressed in heavy trousers and high boots. A shirt of mail fell almost to his knees and an iron cap covered his head. A tremendous war axe hung at his side to complete the picture. He looked every inch the rugged, mountain dwarf he was supposed to be. If he was half the fighter he appeared, then his presence, whatever the reason, was a welcome addition to the party. But one thing had to be addressed immediately. He turned back to Sodan. “You hired me to lead this journey because Durin couldn’t come. His appearance is welcome but our contract still stands. I command.”
Sodan was caught off guard. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted. “This has all been rather sudden.”
“I’m perfectly willing to take Storm’s orders,” Durin said. “After all, he’s been doing this kind of thing for years. And, in the event of an emergency, there must be no doubt who is in charge. People get killed otherwise.”
Storm nodded his thanks but kept his eyes on Sodan. It belatedly occurred to him this was the perfect opportunity to back out of an unhealthy assignment. A glance at Ralt re-emerging from the wagon stiffened his resolve. No wizard, rancher or not, was going to show more courage than he did. He clamped his lips shut and waited for Sodan’s answer.
The old man’s gaze flickered back and forth between them thoughtfully. Abruptly he came to a decision. “Storm leads,” he said, looking around at the men. They all nodded silently.
Wondering if he’d made the right decision or not, Storm rose to his feet. “In that case, we’re wasting time. We break camp and ride at once. Durin will assign flankers. Thomas will ride point.”
The men scrambled to obey.
After a cold breakfast, they were on their way again. Sodan volunteered to drive the wagon so Ralt lazed back beside his uncle, studying an arcane book or simply eyeballing the scenery as the mood took him.
There was much to be seen. The Plains of Aroon were a hundred leagues wide at their narrowest point, nearly five hundred at their widest. North and south they ran for nearly twelve hundred. Every conceivable variety of animal and plant life thronged the prairie. Vast herds moved slowly about, cropping the verdant grasses and shrubs. Late blooming flowers scented the air. Over the creaking of the wagon wheels, they could hear the lazy hum of insects and chirping birds.
Morning slowly gave way to midday and Sodan finally retired from the heat, giving the reins over to Ralt.
Cutting through the trail dust Durin moved over to ride by Storm. “Ye speak in military terms and we ride war fashion,” he said bluntly.
Storm glanced at him. “You object?”
“No. But I wonder at your reasons. Are you expecting trouble so soon?”
“I always expect trouble. That way I’m never disappointed.”
Durin nodded then moved away with a quiet smile.
The hills behind them sank slowly out of view until they disappeared in the tall grass. It was as though they rode through an ocean made of brown instead of blue. Their days quickly settled into a routine. Thomas would scout ahead with his heavy bow to provide them with an abundance of fresh meat as the days blended into one another. One was much like the last. Ride from dawn ’till dusk, pitch camp, eat, set the watches and sleep, then do it all over again the next day. Each morning the sky was clear and cloudless, only a haze of dust hung in the still air. The herds of buffalo grew in size until they blackened the land for leagues in every direction. Once they saw a long-fanged prairie cat, distant cousin to the smaller mountain lions the men were familiar with. The nights grew progressively cooler, heralding an early winter. More than one man predicted there would be snow in the passes of the Ridge Mountains before they reached Robling.
Their journey was so dull and boring Storm was surprised one night to find himself springing out of his blankets from a dead sleep, sword in hand. He checked himself abruptly, searching the camp for whatever had woken him. A quick glance confirmed all was well, so why were his nerves taut with a sense of impending danger? He stepped away from his blankets, listening closely. For as long as he could remember he’d been able to feel danger approaching while other men laughed uncaringly, secure in their false safety. That strange sense had never let him down; he didn’t believe it would now either.
Overhead, the moon lit up the ground with pale light, trailed by the dozens, if not hundreds of tiny dots known as the Pebbles, debris torn away from it during the Chaos Wars.
In that pale ghostly light, the night was still.
The usual chirping of insects and croaking of frogs was absent. Alarmed, he spun around searching the horizon for the danger he was now certain was approaching. Then he saw it. A dark blot obscured the stars to the south. Flashes of light flickered fitfully beneath it.
Ogden, the heavy-set guard on duty, moved to join him. “It’s only a storm, Captain. Been going for about an hour now.”
“A lightning storm,” Storm corrected him. “A lightning storm over a plain of grass, dry from the summer’s heat, ready to burn.”
“Ye fear a prairie fire?” rumbled a voice behind him.
He turned to find Durin and Thomas approaching. “Not the fire so much as the herds fleeing it. Even a well-made palisade is not always proof against their panic. And we don’t even have that much shelter.”
“The Captain is right,” the usually jocular Thomas added seriously, his accent suddenly missing. “I was raised on these plains. The only way to survive a stampede is to get out of its way – if you can.”
The dwarf shook his head. “Ye don’t even know that the storm has started a fire, let alone a stampede.”
“Wrong,” Storm and Thomas said in unison.
Thomas continued, “A storm that size” – he gestured at the almost continuous flashes of lightning – “is guaranteed to start a fire, which in turn will start a stampede. Count on it.”
“Yes,” Storm agreed. “But in which direction?”
“No way to tell Captain, but I’d feel a lot better if we were moving. If it comes our way we won’t have much time to get out its path.”
“You’re right. Durin, get the men up and mounted. We ride at once.”
The dwarf shrugged but turned to his task without comment. His voice was a smaller echo of the distant thunder as he readied the men. For all that they were city folk, they were well-trained Storm admitted to himself. After the first few grumbles, they responded with quick discipline. Even Ralt lent a hand saddling the horses. Soon they were moving through the darkness, the dying campfire a lonely beacon in the night.
Fearful of unseen holes or sudden drops in the dark, they rode cautiously. Still more fearful of a stampede, Storm urged them to greater speed, ignoring their protests. Long minutes dragged past until a sudden shout from Thomas brought them to a halt.
To the south, on their left, an orange glow lit up the clouds from beneath. It grew quickly as they watched. Thomas slid off his horse and stretched his length in the grass, one ear pressed to the ground. He rose a moment later, his face grim.
“It comes,” he said tersely as he swung back into his saddle.
“How far?” Storm asked him.
“Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. We’re directly in its path, and it’s wide – very wide.”
Storm cursed. If Thomas was right the stampede was practically on top of them already. “Alright then; ride for your lives! All of you! Ride!”
The men needed no urging. One glance at the growing fire coupled with the memory of the teeming herds filling the plains told them they stood at death’s door. Speed was their only hope before it slammed shut on them. They kicked their horses into a gallop.
Storm knew he would always remember that frantic ride through the inky darkness as a nightmare. They whipped through the tall grass at speeds that were foolhardy even in the full light of day. The darkness turned it into a suicidal rush through the night that could end in an instant of shattered flesh and bone at the slightest misstep. The wagon bounced and shimmied like a living thing as Ralt fought the reins, all the while urging the horses to greater and greater speed. The wind of their passage brought tears to their eyes and blurred their vision until they were truly blind, but they only spurred their horses harder. And prayed.
Their prayers went unheard.
With a sudden whinny of pain, the horse in front of Storm went down with a sickening crunch of bones. Specter swerved to the right, almost spilling him out of the saddle. His stride faltered for a moment, then strengthened again. One of the men, anonymous in the dark, started to rein in his horse.
“No!” Storm thundered. “Leave him! He’s already dead!”
The guard grimaced, then spurred his mount. Storm lashed Specter, wondering if his words were true. It didn’t matter he thought angrily; if they stopped they’d all be killed. He offered up a wordless prayer for the fallen guard then bent even lower over Specter’s neck.
The flashes of lightning were closer now, electric blue flashes that outlined them eerily in the night. The growing fire in the south cast flickering shadows across the land. Like some hideous army from Hell they appeared, the wind whipping their cloaks behind them. In the distance, the dim roar of the stampede began to make itself heard – a sound out of time – further heightening the unreality of the scene.
They hurtled through the night in a bone-shaking race with death. The noise grew until their savage shouts at the horses were drowned by the thundering hooves of countless, fear maddened buffalo.
Storm risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the vast herd, almost upon them. Then in the still growing light from the fire, he saw open prairie. Bellowing over the earthshaking noise he hauled savagely on Specter’s reins, hoping the rest of them heard him.
Pounding hard on his heels they raced for safety beyond the edge of the stampede. Every second brought them closer to open ground, every second brought the stampede closer to killing them. Storm could make out individual animals now. He fought against the urge to close his eyes. This is gonna be close!
Then . . .
. . . the stampede was behind them, racing away, north, into the night.
“Yeah!” he shouted, pumping his fist exultantly. “We made it!”
The men took up his shout, yelling in relief at their brush with death. They quickly slowed the horses to a trot, not wishing to tempt fate anymore this night. They kept riding for another ten minutes before Storm felt they were far enough west from the mighty stampede to risk stopping. Finally, he called a halt and ordered the men to sound off.
Thomas was sagging in his saddle in relief. “Who did we lose?” Storm queried him.
Storm shook his head. “I can’t place him.” Odd colors floated at the edge of his vision. He blinked to clear his eyes.
“The right flanker, Cap’em. Scar on his cheek.” With the danger passed, his hick accent suddenly reappeared.
Oh yes. Now he remembered. Noisy, talkative sort of fellow. Well, he was a lot quieter now. “Assign Ogden to his position. How is the wagon?”
“Boldric and Durin are looking it over. We’ll know in a few minutes.”
Storm dismounted, patting Specter’s sweaty flank. The ground shook beneath his feet from the power of the stampede’s thundering hooves. He grinned at Ralt who was slumped back in his seat, “Quite a ride, eh wizard?”
“One I’d just as soon not repeat if it’s OK with you,” he replied wearily.
Storm laughed. A close call with death always left him feeling invigorated, more alive than ever. He spotted Boldric climbing out from under the wagon. “How’s it look?”
The burly guard shrugged, brushing himself off. “Looks alright to me but Durin’s eyes are better in the dark than mine. Let’s wait and see what he says.”
Storm felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to find Ralt behind him. “What?”
“The wagon may be alright, but Sodan isn’t. That was a pretty rough ride for a man his age. He looks like death warmed over.”
“Blast it!” Storm muttered. “I was afraid something like this would happen. He’s too old for this kind of thing. He should have stayed home.”
The wizard nodded agreement. “Still, it’s Krista that he cares about and we’re getting paid to bring him along.”
Storm heaved a sigh, “Alright. See what you can do for him.”
Ralt opened his mouth to reply but Storm cut him off, “Never mind. Just do what you can.”
The corners of Ralt’s mouth pulled down, “Right. I’ll explain things later.”
Storm was already tired of the conversation. “You do that.”
Storm knelt to stick his head under the wagon, dismissing Ralt. The weird colors at the edge of his vision seemed to be getting worse. He squeezed his eyes again and shook his head slightly to clear it. “Durin. What’s it look like to those dwarven eyes of yours?”
“Not bad,” the dwarf replied. “Not bad at all. Much better than I hoped actually. Whoever built this wagon knew what they were doing.” He pointed at a shapeless mass. “See those joints? Tempered steel instead of iron. And its got those new, double springs wagon builders have been experimenting with of late.”
Storm shook his head, marveling at Durin’s vision. He couldn’t see anything, “If you say so.” He stood up, casting a glance at the fire still burning to the south. If the wind pushed it their way it was good to know the wagon was still serviceable. He left Durin to his inspection and started to join the men in rubbing down the horses. Their flanks were heaving and covered with froth.
A sudden wave of dizziness washed over him. The colors flickering around him closed in like a shroud. For an instant he could almost see a strange pattern hanging in the air, marking their trail behind them. He shook his head and nearly fell, lurching to keep his balance. The dizziness faded somewhat but refused to go away, nor did the flickering colors leave either.
Setting his jaw he walked carefully to Specter and began rubbing him down. What in blazes was going on here? Had he taken ill with some strange disease?
Thomas, working on one of the horses, edged toward him. “Ralt wants to talk to ya, Cap’em,” he said in low tones. “Go on, I’ll take care of yer horse.” His eyes flickered toward the wagon, expression grim.
Storm’s heart sank, but he kept his face impassive. “Stinking wizards aren’t good for anything but talking,” he growled out loud for the benefit of the men. Low chuckles greeted this remark as he strode to the wagon.
He reached it just as Ralt emerged, pulling the flaps tight behind him. He gestured Storm toward a small pile of rocks away from the men. Durin trailed along behind him, eyes downcast in sorrow. Reaching it Ralt sat down wearily. “He’s got chest pains,” he said without preamble. “Bad chest pains. If we move him tonight he’ll die.”
Storm nodded at the distant fire. “If that comes our way we may not much choice.”
“I know, I know. I’m just telling you that if we do, Sodan won’t live to see dawn.”
Storm cursed under his breath. He felt helpless in situations like this, a feeling he never enjoyed. Grimly he considered their circumstances. If the old man hadn’t insisted on coming with his granddaughter’s body they wouldn’t be in this fi . . . Wait a minute! He turned eagerly back to the wizard. “Why not do to Sodan what you did to Krista? Then it won’t matter how much we move him.”
Ralt shook his head. “It’s a good idea, but the spell is beyond me. Gerald cast it on Krista, not me.”
Storm’s heart dropped again. Great. If they moved the old man he’d die. If they stayed put they’d all roast. All they could really do was hope the fire went in some other direction. He glowered at the sorcerer. “A fat lot of good you are. You can’t heal him. You can’t put him in a jar or whatever. You can’t ride or fight. What in blazes are you here for anyway?”
“I told you, a demon might try to--”
“Drag her soul down to Hell,” Storm finished for him. “Yeah, yeah, I know. But she was in Zered for months and nothing happened. We’ve been on the trail for days and nothing’s happened. Nothing!”
The corners of Ralt’s mouth quirked upwards in amusement. “When Krista’s body, and more importantly, the box with her soul in it are stationary, there’s no danger at all. When she’s being moved around though, it creates, I don’t know, ripples. Imagine a boat sitting quietly at dock, then imagine that same boat moving across a quiet lake. Any underwater monsters will notice the ripples, which will lead them to the boat. The same idea holds true with Krista. The longer and further we move her, the greater the chances of trouble.”
Storm considered this news thoughtfully, laying aside the matter of Sodan for the moment. “Then we can expect trouble toward the end of our journey rather than at the beginning?”
“Exactly,” Ralt nodded, pleased at Storm’s understanding. “And just like that boat I mentioned, the faster we move her, the more pronounced the ripples become. Back along our trail, the colors are pretty vivid right now.”
“Colors?” Storm’s hand shot out and jerked the wizard to his feet. “What colors? What are you talking about?”
Surprised, Ralt could only splutter, “Back along our trail; colors, patterns of magic. What’s the matter with you? Let me go!” He pawed ineffectually at Storm’s fist. “Durin! Get him off me!” The dwarf only stared at him quizzically.
Storm tightened his grip, glaring down at the wizard. “Patterns? How do you know about them?” he gritted.
Ralt’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “You see them too!” he exclaimed in wonder. “Lord of Light! You’re a Ghibbore!” He pronounced it ghi-bōre’.
Storm’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “What? Talk sense, wizard!” When he was growing up he remembered the village chief had once mentioned the Ghibbore were some kind of ancient heroes, but that was all he knew.
Ralt refused to surrender his dignity by fighting Storm’s grasp any further. He dropped his hands and stared back defiantly. “I am talking sense. Only two kinds of people can see the weave of magic; those who’ve had the attunement spell cast on them, like tuning a musical instrument to play the right notes, or a Ghibbore – it’s from the Old Tongue and means mighty man. It always refers to someone who was chosen by the gods to be born able to see the weave of magic. I doubt you’d let anyone cast a spell on you . . .”
“You bet I wouldn’t!” Storm snarled.
“. . . so you have to be a Ghibbore,” Ralt continued as though he hadn’t been interrupted. “That means you must have just turned twenty-four.”
Storm’s knuckles were turning white with the effort of not lashing out. “Twenty-five,” He corrected absently before he caught himself and remembered. He pushed Ralt away with an angry shove. Theoretically, he was twenty-five but he’d only been on Gaia twenty-four years.
Ralt stumbled and caught himself. Straightening up he saw the confusion written on Storm’s features. “What?” he asked questioningly.
His mind whirled, thoughts surfacing he hadn’t had to face in years. Twenty-five? Technically he was a hundred and two, over half as old as Sodan, but how could he explain that to anyone?
The dwarf roused himself from his grief over Sodan as Storm’s silence lengthened. “Lad, whot’s got ye in such a lather?” He and Ralt exchanged a bewildered look.
Storm dropped heavily to the rock pile as his knees gave out. The only way to answer the wizard was to tell him what he’d never told anyone. Colors were still flickering wildly back along their trail. This is crazy, he thought. But if Ralt could believe it, and he obviously did, maybe he’d believe Storm’s tale. Who knows, even Durin might believe it.
“Hey.” Ralt laid a hand on his shoulder. “What’s going on? Is being a Ghibbore too much for that barbarian soul of yours?”
Storm shot him an irritated look. “Give the barbarian thing a rest; I was adopted.”
Both men were surprised. “Ye never mentioned it before,” Durin rumbled.
“Ralt never told me I was a Ghibbore before.”
Now they were completely lost. Ralt shook his head in bafflement. “What have they got to do with one another, aside from your age?”
“Because I’m a hundred and two, older than both of you put together!” his voice cracked like a whip. He winced, hoping his words hadn’t carried to the men lingering around the wagon. It was bad enough he had to tell Ralt and Durin. With them at least there was an outside possibility they might believe him; with the rest of the men, there was no possibility.
Ralt’s face went carefully blank; it was the kind of look people got when they were trying not to antagonize a madman. “Is that a fact? Odd you don’t look it.”
Durin wasn’t nearly as tactful. “Have ye lost yer mind? Perhaps ye have the manner and bearing of a man forty years older but yer still younger than Ralt here and don’t ye try to deny it,” he snorted, fists on his hips. Ralt tried to silence him but the dwarf was having none of it. “It’s the middle of the night, Sodan is ill, the men need leading, and here ye sit prattling on about yer age!”
Storm fought an internal battle with himself then gave it up. He’d already said too much, there was no point in trying to back out now. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’, he realized, an old saying he hadn’t thought of in years. “I wasn’t born on this world, on Gaia,” he muttered finally. “I came here from another world, where I was already an old man, but when I woke up here, I was in the body I had when I was a year old, just a baby. That’s when the Bear Clan found me, in the middle of a storm – twenty-four years ago on Mid-Summer’s Eve.”
Dead silence greeted him. Past Ralt and Durin’s startled faces the men continued to wipe down their horses, a low murmur of conversation just barely reaching his ears. Off on the horizon, the fire seemed to be dying down.
“Maybe you should start at the beginning,” Ralt said carefully.
Storm nodded. Even if they didn’t believe him, he’d still wanted to tell this story for so long it was about to explode out of him. “I was born in a place called Dallas, Texas . . .”
Beware the past, it’s always close behind.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
“I was born in a place called Dallas, Texas, on January 1st, 1900 A.D., as time is reckoned there. My name was Mark Strumbull and I looked the same as I do here. What they called, The War to End All Wars came along and I lied about my age so I could enlist in the Marines. It didn’t end all wars of course, but that’s what everyone hoped when it began. My wife, Lydia, and I got married while I was home on leave. She was a good woman and a better wife than I was a husband. We had four boys and three girls, all of them long since grown and married, usually while I was away from home. After the Battle of Belleau Wood, I was given what was called a field commission and became a Lieutenant. After the war was over I decided to stay in the Marines until I retired.
“But later, some madmen named Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito came along and we had to fight another huge war. By the time that one was over, I was a colonel and ready to retire. Lydia and I started a small business to keep ourselves busy, but mainly we just spoiled our grandchildren, but again, she was better at the family stuff than I was. Then, in what was called the year 1968, she died of cancer. After I got over her death I spent the next twenty years running around the world like an old hippie; climbing mountains, sailing on distant rivers, visiting strange countries. It was wonderful, but I was already sixty-eight when she died and I didn’t get any younger as time went on. By the time I was eighty-eight, I was getting too old, slowing down, joints giving me pain, strength fading, and I was taking more medicine than you could shake a stick at . . .”
“Wait, wait a moment,” Ralt interrupted suddenly. “How could you be getting old when you were only eighty-eight? Most people live to around two hundred.”
Storm frowned heavily at the interruption. It had taken him years to get to the point of being able to tell anyone and now the stupid wizard was butting in on him! “Well we don’t live that long on Earth, okay?” He started to carry on with his story then paused. “I guess I won’t live as long as you then.”
Durin shook his blocky head. “I’ve heard of folks claiming they come from Elder Earth. Nothing was ever said about ’em dying quicker than the rest of us. Mey’be ye live longer when ye come here.”
“Gerald once mentioned that people from Elder Earth are adapted to Gaia,” Ralt added, obviously struggling to recall a long-ago, half-forgotten conversation. “Something about the portal or gate or whatever changes you somehow. Maybe you’ll have the same lifespan as the rest of us.” He smiled helpfully.
Storm heaved a sigh, “Fine, whatever. Do you want to hear this or not?” They both nodded. “Alright then,” he continued, “rather than wind up in a nursing home for old folks I decided to, as they say, die with my boots on. I bought a small sailing boat and headed out into an area of the ocean called the Bermuda Triangle, right in the middle of hurricane season. I figured; one good hurricane at my age and I’d be a goner for sure.
“The Bermuda Triangle is famous for more than just hurricanes though. It’s also known as a place where people just disappear, even whole ships just up and vanish. One moment they’re there and the next – poof! – they’re gone. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no way to predict it; sometimes it just happens.”
Ralt nodded. “One of the gates or portals,” he said quickly. “Sorry,” he added at Storm’s answering scowl. “Go on.”
“Annny-way,” he sighed in exasperation, “that’s what happened to me. One moment I was fighting the outer winds of a hurricane, the next thing I knew I was laying on a rock outcropping, still in the middle of a storm but now I was naked and stuck in the body of a baby. I still knew everything, who I was, still remembered it all, but I was only one year old again. My coordination was shot, everything was all mixed up. I could barely make myself crawl. I didn’t even realize I was crying until a woman showed up out of the rain and grabbed me.”
“It was Nadia, my adoptive mother from the Bear Clan. Since she found me in the middle of a storm that’s what she named me. I had to learn to walk and talk and everything all over again, although I learned it faster than normal since I was actually relearning it.”
“I was with the Bear Clan for years until I looked like a normal 15-year-old. My adoptive father, Vamer, and I had one argument too many and I took off on my own. I didn’t even take time to go back to the village to say good-bye to Nadia.” Storm waved a hand in the air. “After that, I wandered around in the wilderness for several weeks until I finally joined a caravan. I’ve been doing that ever since,” he concluded. He could tell they believed some of it, but how much? And what would their reaction be?
Before he had a chance to find out Thomas interrupted to tell them the prairie fire had gone out and rain was headed their way. “Thanks,” he nodded curtly. “Get camp set up and we’ll sort it all out in the morning.” That last was aimed at Ralt and Durin as well as Thomas.
Sodan’s condition forced them to remain camped where they’d stopped for nearly a week before Ralt grudgingly pronounced him fit to travel. The men accepted it as an unexpected vacation, particularly Thomas, who produced a deck of cards from some mysterious nether space on his person then proceeded to fleece the men out of a week’s pay.
Storm used the time to reflect on the change in his relationship with Durin and especially Ralt. They had believed him after all. Ralt laid it out for him the first night after the stampede. The men were all asleep, Sodan was tucked away in the wagon still complaining about his chest and only the three of them sat up around the small watch fire.
“It’s the fact you can see the magic weave,” Ralt explained, his face lit from beneath by the fire. “It only happens to a Ghibbore during their 12th year or every 12th year after that; in your case, when you’re twenty-four.”
“A hundred and two,” Storm corrected him. “It’s only been twenty-four years since I came to Gaia.”
Durin puffed out a smoke ring that lazily floated away. “Whichever way ye look at it ye meet Ralt’s measure of twelves since ye came into da world.”
“It’s not my measure,” Ralt protested warmly. “Gerald taught it to me from a book that was over a thousand years old about how the gods create their Ghibbores.” Storm knew the “gods” of Gaia weren’t real gods and according to the stories Ralt was passing on to him from his mentor’s history books and the stories the elders used to tell around the camp fires of the Bear Clan, it had taken hundreds of them working together to create Gaia and the galaxy-sized universe around it. It was a little universe created by little gods, minor gods, a universe of minor gods. He smiled to himself as the memory of his sixth-grade music teacher came unbidden to his mind. Mrs. Bakersfield would have called it g-minor, after the musical chord, a universe of g-minor. He smiled again, remembering Nadia’s reaction when he gave the world that name.
The discussion winded its way back and forth along those lines.
“How did you know for sure I was a Ghibbore?” he questioned Ralt one day. “I know what you said about the colors and the weave but surely there must be other people who’ve displayed strange powers without being one?” It was the fifth day of their unexpected break and Sodan was resting comfortably in the wagon while the men lazed about in the warm, afternoon sun. Ralt was cooking up some strange concoction Durin claimed would hasten the old man’s recovery. He kept stirring the pot while he answered.
“Yes, but not many. To be honest, it was Rogar who put me onto you,” he said. “He’d been one of Gerald’s apprentices, oh, I don’t know, years ago. You didn’t know that did you?” he grinned.
Storm shook his head silently as he tried to imagine Rogar wearing robes and chanting arcane spells. He couldn’t do it.
“He didn’t stay with Gerald very long; just long enough to realize he wanted to do something else in life I guess. They parted on good terms anyway.” He sniffed delicately at the pot. “This stuff smells worse than a sewer on a hot day; I hope Durin knows what he’s doing.” He wrinkled his nose and went back to stirring it. “But he did remember some of what Gerald taught him, the basics you could call it. And a couple of minor spells. One of them apparently, was the detection spell. It lets you size someone up, find out if they’re telling the truth, see if there is a dark stain of evil on their soul; little stuff like that.”
It didn’t sound so little to Storm, but it did explain why Rogar never had any scum working for him – he managed to weed them out before he hired them. But Ralt was still talking.
“When he used his spell on you he found something he’d never seen before. He didn’t have the slightest idea what it meant so he wrote Gerald a letter asking for his help. Gerald told me about it of course but neither of us could figure it out from what little we had to go on. Rogar’s letter told us to be on the lookout for a barbarian named Storm from the Bear Clan. It’s rare to find barbarians this far south so when you showed up I figured you might be the one he was talking about. I used the same detection spell he did and saw the same thing he did, but I didn’t have any idea what it meant until the night of the stampede.”
“Adopted barbarian,” Storm reminded him. “But I never told him what clan I was from. It never came up. How did he know about it?”
Ralt shrugged, unconcerned with such details. “Maybe you mentioned it to someone else who told him later. You’d be surprised what we let slip when we’re not paying attention. Who knows?” He waved it off and leaned over to take another sniff at the pot he was stirring. “Well, I think this is about ready. If it doesn’t kill him it can’t help but make him better. I’d sure as blazes get better if I thought someone was trying to feed me this slop.” He grabbed the pot and strode off toward the wagon, leaving Storm to his musings.
Later that day he cornered Ralt again, interrupting him as he sat reading his spellbook. “Could a priest use magic to see whatever it was you saw with your detection spell?” He quickly filled him in about Lamriack and his cursed interest him as a boy.
Ralt smothered a grin, “Yep. He would have seen the same thing Rogar and I did; a strange, inner glow of power like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it of course but if that’s not the mark of a Ghibbore, I don’t know what is.”
Storm cocked his head. “First time?”
The wizard shrugged, moving his spellbook from one hand to another. He’d been reading when Storm interrupted him. “Even for those with elven blood like me, there’s still a first time for everything. Besides, how often do you think someone from Elder Earth winds up on Gaia?”
“Elven blood like you’?” he asked, ignoring Ralt’s evident desire to get back to his reading.
"My mother was half-elven,” the slender wizard shrugged.
Storm was pole axed. Half-elven? The different races could interbreed? He’d always assumed the different races on Gaia were actually different species. But if Ralt’s mother was half-elven then that was a whole new kettle of fish entirely and it meant Ralt was . . . “You don’t just have elven blood, you’re actually part elf!” he blurted, unable to hold it back.
Ralt seemed genuinely amused. “One quarter to be precise.” He pulled back his long hair to reveal his ears. The lobes were barely half the length they should have been. At the top, his ears came to a faint, but discernible point. “My brothers and sisters took after my father. I was the only one who took after mother.”
Storm suddenly understood why he didn’t have a beard or mustache, why his eyebrows seemed so thin and arched, even if only slightly. It explained why he was so uncommonly handsome. “But, but in order for an elf and a human to have children, they’d both have to be the same species,” he objected weakly. “Dogs and cats can’t have babies, but different breeds of dogs can, no matter how different they are; a dog is a dog. The same thing for is true for people.”
Ralt set his spellbook down. “That’s pretty sharp,” he admired. “Most people never figure it out even with the legend.”
“Legend?” Storm frowned.
Ralt sat up and recited;
He shrugged. “I think the for all time part is a little exaggerated, but the rest is probably true.”
Storm nodded absently as long-forgotten memories began to surface. “You know, I think I remember the tribal elders telling us those stories when I was a kid. I’d forgotten about them.” He snapped out of it. “But you’re the only one who took after your mother?”
Ralt spread his hands helplessly. “It happens that way sometimes. I think that’s why she came to visit me after her death instead of the others; I was the only one who could see her.”
Came to visit him after her death? Unable to think of a suitable reply to something like that, Storm retreated in confusion. He spent the rest of the day avoiding the wizard as much as possible. His head was already filled with too many uncomfortable thoughts; he didn’t need Ralt adding any more.
On the bright side, however, Durin’s smelly concoction seemed to do the trick for Sodan; he made his first appearance outside the wagon that night, and again the next day. The day after that, Ralt allowed he was ready to travel.
Storm was glad to be moving again. Too much time to sit and think was bad for the soul. He now understood the old saying better than ever. He still had too much time to think during the uneventful trek across the plains but at least morning and night were consumed with the ritual of setting up camp then taking it down again. It was a welcome reprieve from his dark, brooding thoughts. There wasn’t any magic on Earth. It had taken him years to accept that it might exist on Gaia. The idea that he was a wizard, or had the potential to be one, was a bit more than he could handle at the moment.
They’d been moving at a brisk pace, two-thirds of the way across the plains when the stampede hit them. Three more days of rapid travel brought them to the foothills of the Ridge Mountains. It took the better part of the day to find the alleged road that led to Robling. It was getting worse every year, which Storm found strange since Ingold was literally rolling in gold from the countless mines that dotted it. Why such a wealthy kingdom let its roads degenerate into this sad state was beyond him. King Roderick really must be losing his mind like the rumors said.
The following morning they were climbing into the foothills, leaving the Plains of Aroon behind. The scenery gradually changed from tall grass and rich soil to granite outcroppings and swaying evergreens. Storm was enjoying the fresh scent of pine when Thomas came charging back down the road from his position as point man.
“Cap’em! Hey, Cap’em! We got trouble!”
“What kind of trouble?”
His black mood vanished in an instant. Time for wizards and magic later; this was more like it! “Where?”
Durin had stopped them when Thomas came galloping back. Now all of them gathered close to listen to his breathless report. “I’d just gotten past that outcropping up there,” he spewed rapidly, pointing back up the trail, “when I stopped to take a leak. I found a bunch of animal bones in a clump of bushes. They can’t be more than a couple weeks old and several of ’em had spikes in the skulls just like you told us about.”
Storm nodded. Manticores had iron-like spikes in their tails they could fire like crossbow quarrels. They packed nearly as much force too. “Go on.”
“That’s it. As soon as I saw ’em I high-tailed it back here.”
“Alright.” He stroked his short beard while he considered what to do. The foothills they were in rose quickly out of the plains, soon giving way to the main body of the Ridge Mountains. The Ridges were an old range, weathered and treacherous. They were undercut by streams and underground rivers, creating a labyrinth of grottoes and caves that sometimes stretched for leagues. It was exactly the kind of place Manticores loved. In fact, the Ridges were lousy with them. He couldn’t remember a caravan that had gone through them without being hit at least once. But those were caravans that had enough manpower to reduce the Manticores to the level of a nuisance rather than a genuine threat. With this small of a band, he couldn’t afford to take chances. Then too, Manticores generally preferred the middle elevations. If they were hunting this far down the mountain it was because they had young to feed. Visitors would not be appreciated in what they regarded as their family territory.
“It’s time to break out the armor,” he told them. Groans sounded from all sides. “I know it’s hot, I don’t like it either but I’d rather sweat than die. Those spikes can punch through mail like a hot knife through butter. Full plate is the only thing that stands a chance of stopping them, so armor up and don’t be all day about it. Oh yeah, another thing, if I catch anyone riding with his visor up, I’ll personally skin them alive. Understood?” He glared at them fiercely.
Subdued nods answered him. They tethered their horses and began digging out the heavy, plate mail armor bundled in the wagon. Getting into full plate wasn’t like putting on a shirt of chain. It took two men to dress a third, so they teamed up, helping each other with this piece and that. The only ones not suiting up were Ralt and Sodan.
The old man was still weak from his heart attack. He probably couldn’t stand up under the weight of the heavy armor anyway. 90 minas of encasing metal was a bit too much to expect a man of his age to handle.
Ralt was unarmored for a different reason. Apparently, steel interfered in some way with the casting of spells. He could wear some steel armor, equal to a certain percentage of his body weight but not enough to do any good against Manticores. His protection would have to come from his Art. He assured Storm he had several spells that were specifically designed to protect him from bolts, arrows and other non-magical missiles. Sodan, on the other hand, would stay in the wagon underneath a large shield brought along with that purpose in mind.
Finally satisfied that everyone, including the horses, were either armored or protected as best they could be, he ordered them to move out. “Remember,” he warned, “those monsters can dive at us from any angle. Keep your heads up and your eyes open. And they fire those spikes in volleys, so don’t bunch up; stay spread out.”
Thomas took the lead again, his longbow held at the ready. The rest of them either had a longbow or crossbow depending on their taste. Durin, an indifferent archer at best, stayed near the wagon to protect Sodan, his war axe clasped tightly in case of a ground attack. Storm had briefly considered a bow, then discarded it in favor of a brace of short spears. His father’s childhood training had taught him to bring down a hawk in mid-air with a single cast. Manticores were just a bit bigger, he thought with grim amusement. All in all, he felt they were reasonably well prepared for, whatever might happen.
They wound their way up the mountain at a slower pace than before, keeping a tense lookout. Every flying object was a potential threat until it resolved itself into an eagle or hawk or some such. As they climbed into the heavily wooded mountains they redoubled their caution. Manticores were intelligent enough to wait in ambush in the thick undergrowth around them. Suspicious bushes and rocky overhangs had to be carefully investigated before passing them. Time and again they hurled spears and small boulders into likely hiding places, bracing themselves for a life and death struggle. Each time they let out a sigh of relief as their efforts went unrewarded. Tension began to take its toll, and sunset found them exhausted for the first time on their trip.
Storm found a defensible site alongside a quiet stream and decided to make an early camp. After talking it over with Durin, he ordered all the guards to stand watches by twos. The rest of them would sleep sitting up in their armor. It was uncomfortable perhaps, but Manticores had been known to attack at night. Once the battle was joined there would be no time to don the heavy armor, and fighting Manticores without it was suicidal at best.
Once again he found himself sitting by the fire with Ralt as the men settled down for the night. Was it chance, or something more, that led him to spend so much time with the wizard? He turned it over in his head as they smoked their pipes in companionable silence. He was trying to decide how to broach the subject when Durin shifted in his sleep, causing his axe to reflect firelight into his eyes. There was another mystery, one he felt more comfortable talking about. “Have you noticed Durin’s axe?” he said quietly so as not to disturb the men.
Ralt nodded around his pipe. “Hurts to look at it it’s so powerful.”
Storm had to agree. He had gradually learned to turn his new talent on and off at will, but until then he’d been forced to shade his eyes every time Durin brought the great axe into view. “Where’d he get it?”
“I don’t know.” Ralt puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “This trip is the first time I’ve seen it.”
“Nope. He’s been with Sodan for years and this is the first time anyone has seen him with it. It makes me wonder.”
“Well,” he hesitated. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but Durin means ’Great One’ in the Old Tongue. It’s a name usually reserved for royalty.”
Storm almost dropped his pipe. “Royalty?” He stared at the sleeping dwarf through slitted eyes. “You mean he’s a king? A dwarven king?”
“Or a prince. I think so. I’ve never had the nerve to ask him. That axe is certainly fit for a king though.”
Storm considered that in silence for a moment, puffing slowly on his pipe. “So what’s a royal dwarf doing hanging around with a merchant from Zered?” he said finally.
“I said ‘usually’,” Ralt replied. “He may not be royal at all.”
Storm shook his head without thinking. “No. He’s royal, he’s a king.”
“How do you know?” Ralt asked carefully, looking askance at him.
Storm’s brow furrowed in confusion at the simple question. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder until Ralt put it into words. “I don’t know how. I just – “He waved his hands vaguely, searching for the right way to put it. “I just know.”
“Nayh,” Storm shook his head. “I’ve always been able to tell things about people. I don’t have any control over it, it comes and goes, but when it happens, it’s always right.”
“I’ve heard of people like that,” Ralt replied quietly. He tamped the tobacco down in his pipe bowl. “Never met one before now though.” He blew a smoke ring up over the fire. “Can I ask you a question?”
“What?” he asked warily.
“Why do you spend so much time with me? I thought you hated wizards.”
Storm started as Ralt asked the very question that had been on his mind earlier. “I do. You’re a bunch of twisted, evil –” He stopped himself in mid-sentence. “Sorry. That was just, habit talking. The truth is, I don’t know why. In fact, I was wondering the same thing earlier, but I didn’t know how to bring it up.”
Ralt smiled faintly. “As with everything else, just do it.”
“And to blazes with the consequences?”
“Something like that.”
“You don’t talk much like a wizard.”
“You don’t talk much like a barbarian.”
They stared at each other in surprise as they said it at the same time. Finally, Storm started to chuckle. A moment later Ralt joined him. Their merry peals of laughter echoed through the cool night air, free and unrestrained.
The next day found them pushing even further into the mountains. They were definitely in Manticore country now. Anything in the air had to be watched closely until they were sure it wasn’t one of the ugly monsters.
In the end, the attack came when it came.
The road, partially washed away, was switch-backing up a steep grade on a southern face devoid of trees that might be used for cover. Heat and trail dust had taken a toll on everyone. They were hot and tired, slumped in their saddles, barely aware of their surroundings. The first anyone knew was when Ogden’s horse suddenly screamed in pain. It collapsed on the road, throwing the guardsman heavily to the ground where he lay stunned.
The Manticore, looking like a winged lion with a fanged, human head, swooped away. Storm cursed their exposed position as he saw a second Manticore coming in for a strafing run. “Off your horses on the uphill side,” he bellowed, flinging himself out of the saddle. Whirling, he hurled a spear savagely at the diving beast. The creature banked away from him with a cry of pain but he knew the wound wasn’t mortal. It gave his men time to dismount though and prepare for the next attack.
A grating scream from above whipped his head around and he saw a third Manticore diving out of the sun. No! How many were there?
A hail of arrows and quarrels rose to meet the monster, accurately to judge by the scream it let out, but Storm shouted to stop the men. “No! Don’t fire all at once! You won’t have time to reload before the next –” A hurtling shadow cut him short as the other two Manticores dove past, firing their tail spikes in a vicious rain. More horses screamed and fell. A hoarse shout, suddenly choked off, told him one of his men had been hit as well. In baffled fury, he flung a spear after one of the swooping monsters. He exulted to see it hit one of them squarely. It stumbled in mid-air but managed to recover.
The third Manticore, maddened by multiple wounds bellowed its rage at them and began another dive. Suddenly it was hit by a bolt of lightning coming up from the ground. In wild surmise, Storm activated his newly acquired vision and traced a lingering trail of power back to Ralt. The wizard was standing fearlessly on the wagon seat, gesturing and chanting. The men raised a ragged cheer as the Manticore, now mortally wounded, plummeted into the gorge below. The other two monsters screeched as they hastily pulled up out of their dives. Flapping hard they rose up out of range of the bows to circle high above. Thankful for the respite, Storm quickly demanded to know who’d been hit.
After a moment Thomas’ voice floated back to him. “It’s Boldric, Cap’em. He’s in pretty bad shape.”
Storm cursed as he flung sweat out of his eyes. Dust from the sudden encounter swirled around them, gritting in the joints of his armor as he shifted position in the hot sun. They couldn’t stay here for long; they’d bake in their heavy armor. The granite rocks around them threw back blinding shafts of light, making vision difficult. They had to move. “Get those horses out of the way up there,” he called. “If they’re alive get them up and moving. If they’re dead, push them over the side.” Turning his head to Ralt, he asked quickly, “Have you got anything that can reach them that far up?”
Ralt shook his head without taking his eyes off the circling monsters. “Not a chance. If they get closer I can hurt them though.”
Storm nodded. Better than nothing, he thought. There was a sudden shower of rocks up ahead and a horse’s body tumbled off the road, crashing head over heels down the rocky slope. Another one followed it a moment later. He waited for a third but it didn’t come.
“How’s it going up there?” he called.
“Just about done, Captain,” Dolgun, one of the guards replied. “Ogden busted a leg but other than that he’s OK.”
“Fine. Alright, listen everyone. Head out at a slow pace. Keep your horses between you and the Manticores. Thomas, divide them into two groups. Only one group is to fire at a time when they attack. Keep something in reserve for the second one. You saw how they like to draw your fire to set you up for the main attack. Don’t let them get away with it.” He grabbed Specter’s reins and started up the road, keeping one eye on the Manticores. “Ralt. Cover us. You’ve got the first shot when they attack.”
“Right,” came the terse reply.
The rough road, already hot and dusty, had been bad enough before the attack when they were riding, but now it was hellish. Walking uphill in plate armor, waiting for an attack that could come at any instant sapped their strength and patience moment by moment. The inviting shade of the trees far ahead tantalized them like a mirage, never seeming to get closer.
The minutes dragged slowly past, each one an eternity. Storm, toughened by his barbarian background and long years of harsh living, took it in stride, but his men weren’t used to this sort of thing. Fatigue was visibly setting in. He began to worry. If they didn’t get to those trees soon, the Manticores were going to pick them off like flies.
A sudden shout from Ralt jerked his head around. “They’ve gone into the sun! I can’t see them!”
Blast it! Storm crouched low behind Specter. “Behind your horses!” he shouted. “Be ready for them!”
A fierce blow on his chest plate staggered him as a tail spike bounced away with a clang. Similar clanging from ahead told him the armor had just saved a lot of lives. A raucous screech sounded just above him. Blinded by the sun he flung a spear upwards, guided only by the screeching. Twanging bowstrings from further up the road sang their own song of death. Over it he heard the deeper thrumming of a powerful bow he didn’t recognize; it must be Thomas’, but he’d never seen him use it before or heard it’s sound. Storm cursed again, trying to shield his eyes so he could get off another throw.
Just then a tremendous clap of thunder rocked him back on his heels. A brilliant bolt of lightning flared, searing his visions. Storm, who still usually thought in terms of feet and inches rather than cubits and spans, thought it was less than twenty feet away. Violet after-images floated painfully before him. He could barely see. A triumphant roar from Durin told him the bolt must have done its work though.
He shook it off in time to see the last Manticore come swooping around for another run, but this time it was no longer hidden by the sun. A hail of arrows along with his last spear buried themselves in its chest and head. One arrow buried itself all the way to the fletching. The Manticore coughed once then simply dropped like a rock. A crashing sound from far below signaled its final demise.
There was a moment of stunned silence then they all burst out talking at once.
“Holy smokes! Did you see that?”
“Nailed that sucker!”
“I got him right between the eyes!”
“Eat that you . . .”
“Alright! Alright! Settle down,” Storm roared. “Anyone get hurt? Call off.” He unhooked his visor, raised it, then took off his helmet altogether. He shook his head, flinging sweat in a spray all around him.
The call-off finished and Thomas yelled back at him, “Everyone’s here Cap’em. Not a scratch on ’em!”
He waved back in relief. “How far to the trees?”
“A couple hundred cubits or so.”
About the length of a football field, Storm thought. It looked further than that to him. “Get the men up there into the shade and take a break.” He turned to the wagon. “How’s everyone here?”
Sodan stuck his head out of the wagon to glare at Ralt. “Miserable. That last bolt of yours came near to deafening me!”
The wizard shrugged, unconcerned by his uncle’s attitude. “Be glad you’re alive to be deafened. They almost had us there for a minute.”
Durin nodded agreement sagely. “The young wizard has the right of it I’ll warrant. The men were dying on their feet. If not for his magic things would have gone much differently.”
“I agree,” Storm nodded. “I’ve never seen three Manticores routed so quickly and easily by a group this small. Usually, it’s a running battle that lasts for hours. Thanks, Ralt.”
Sodan’s illness had prevented him from noticing the growing friendship between his nephew and the tall swordsman. He could only stare in shock as if day had suddenly turned to night. He shook his head in disbelief then pulled back into the wagon, closing the curtain behind him.
Storm and Ralt shared a small shrug. From his earliest days in the Marines, Storm had always thought of it as combat camaraderie. People who were worlds apart suddenly became friends for life after fighting side-by-side.
“Come on, let’s get out of this heat,” Storm muttered. Mounting Specter, he spurred him up the road, leaving the wagon to follow behind.
Camp that night was a somber affair. Ogden’s leg had been easily set. Storm judged it nothing more than a simple fracture, painful but not serious. In this, he was supported by Durin and Arthur, one of the guards who had some medical experience. Ogden could ride in the wagon with Ralt and Sodan without slowing them down.
Boldric’s wounds, however, were very serious.
He’d been hit by no less than seven spikes, three of which had penetrated his armor. One had slammed its way through his visor and lodged in his jaw. The rear end of the spike was trapped in the steel mesh of his visor, forcing them to cut off his helmet in order to remove it. It was impossible to keep from moving the embedded spike during the operation. Boldric’s screams of pain finally stopped when he mercifully passed out. Once off, his face was revealed as a red ruin. The spike had shattered his jawbone, pushing large splinters of bone up into his right eye with horrifying results.
The other two spikes had sliced through the thin joints in Boldric’s armor on his lower right side. One had broken several ribs before slicing open his intestines. The other one had buried itself entirely in his liver. Removing them was a bloody, time-consuming operation. Durin did most of the work, assisted by Arthur and Storm. Once they were out his wounds were washed and bound. Only then did they discover he’d died during the process.
Storm sighed heavily. How many times had he seen this, on Earth as well as Gaia? Work like mad to save a man’s life only to have him die halfway through it. It reinforced the wisdom of his decision to bring only single men. The fewer widows and orphans on his conscience the better.
He ordered a burial detail to dig a grave.
That done he turned his attention to the horses.
Five of them had been wounded to one degree or another, none of them seriously. Whether or not they could carry a rider was still an open question. They dressed their wounds as best they could then retired to eat dinner.
Afterward was Boldric’s funeral. Thomas and Arthur wrapped his body in sheets then lowered him gently into the ground. The men stood around the grave, heads down, waiting for Storm to speak.
He ground his teeth in the gathering dusk. This was the part he always hated. He never knew what to say. “I’m not a priest,” he began, “so I don’t know the right words. I only know that Boldric was a just man, just and good. He fought and died bravely. I wish him well.”
The men nodded at his words, apparently pleased. Two of them made the sign of the Lord of Light. Durin clapped him on the shoulder. “Well said,” he murmured. “Alright lads, cover him up. Tamp it down hard, mind ye, so the wolves don’t get him.”
The men not involved in filling the grave wandered back to camp. None of them seemed inclined to go to sleep. They merely sat around the fire, watching it moodily. Storm began to get concerned. He drifted over to Thomas who was polishing his bow, the powerful one he hadn’t recognized during the fight. “Are they going to mutiny?” he whispered, indicating the men gathered around the fire.
Thomas looked up in surprise then chuckled low in his throat. “Sorry, Cap’em. I forgot, you haven’t known ’em long.” He turned his attention back to his bow. “Naw, they’re not gonna do anything like that. We’re all volunteers. None of us want to see anything happen to Krista. For some of us, she’s the only family we got. We’ll get her there or die trying. But it gets ya when a mate dies like that. Makes ya think about the future and stuff. It ain’t good for ’em, but they’ll get over it.”
Storm knew about thinking too much about the future. He’d been doing far too much of it himself lately. To keep his mind off it he asked, “So what makes Krista so special that you’d all die trying to save her?”
“Well, it’s hard ta say exactly. It’s not something you can really put yer finger on if you follow me.”
Storm shook his head. “No,” he said bluntly. “Give me an example.”
Thomas leaned on his bow thinking. “Well, she remembers your name. Sodan don’t do that. Ah, he’s alright ta work for and he don’t stiff ya on payday, but he don’t really know you that well. Yer just a face in the crowd. Krista, now,” he smiled fondly, “she remembers your name and your age and where yer from and all kinds of stuff. She stops and talks to us. Not that, ‘Hi, how’s the weather?’ stuff either; I mean real talk, like you and me do.” His smile widened on his face as he spoke. “And it’s not just talking either, she does stuff for us. Last year when Boldric’s mum was dying, she gave him a week off – with pay! – ta go see her. Couldn’t tell the old man about it of course ‘cause he’d had a hissy fit fer sure.”
“A soft touch,” Storm grunted.
“No, no, it ain’t like that at all,” Thomas protested, rising to her defense. “She can be a holy terror when you cross her. There was a guy a couple years ago, he tried to pass off some low-grade wool as high grade; well, she caught him at it and lit into him like a prairie cat. For anyone else that’d be enough.” He paused expectantly.
“But not for her?” Storm said when it became evident Thomas was waiting for him to say something.
“You got it, Cap’em. You know what she did?”
“She hired some scribes and had ’em print up hundreds of copies of a letter telling everyone what he’d tried to do. Then she hired some criers to yell it on the street corners for them that couldn’t read, that’s what!” he said triumphantly. “Ruined him completely! He had to leave town. No one would do business with him anymore after that,” he chortled.
Storm had her pegged now. “A Greener.”
Thomas gave him a blank look. “A what?”
“Did she ever go to meetings where she had to wear a green sash?”
“I saw her wearing a green sash a few times when she went out. I don’t know nothing about a meeting though.”
“You can’t get into them unless you’re invited.”
“So what are they?”
He shrugged massively. “It’s a new group that started, I don’t know, ten, twelve years ago. They believe in absolute justice and absolute equality. They think everyone should be treated as an equal and they think everyone should pay for their crimes no matter who they are or what the crime was.” He shrugged again. “They’re not very popular with the Royals.”
“I’ll bet they ain’t,” Thomas gasped. “That kind of talk can git ya hung in a hurry.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Who’d have thought it?” he breathed in wonder. “Krista, a revolutionary.”
“Keep it to yourself,” Storm said sharply. “Here in Ingold, King Roderick has a reward posted for Greeners. He hates ’em.” It went further than that but there was no point in worrying the lanky archer. The last time he’d been through Ingold, Roderick had been on a virtual rampage against Greeners, locking up anyone who was related to them; even going after their friends and people they worked with.
Thomas pantomimed locking his lips and throwing away the key. “I won’t do nothing ta get Krista in trouble,” he said earnestly. “Believe me!”
No, he probably wouldn’t, but as soon as possible he’d be after her to take him to a meeting, Storm reflected. The Greeners were as popular with the lower classes as they were hated by the upper classes. Justice was more of a theory than a reality in most places. It was one thing about life on Gaia he’d never gotten used to. “Enough of this,” he said abruptly. “Let’s go join the men. I hate it when they just sit and stare at the fire that way. It’s not good for them.”
“Sure thing, Cap’em,” Thomas grinned at him. “Maybe we can get a game of dice going, cheer ’em up some.”
The men didn’t want cheering up though, and in the morning Storm felt inclined to join them in their blue funk. It turned out two of the horses were more badly wounded than they’d thought. They were totally unable to bear the weight of a rider on their back. In fact, they were lucky to be standing at all. After a prolonged discussion, Storm ruled that until the horses had recovered, they would stay where they were.
They were camped on a slight rise at the bottom of a cliff. A large river poured out from its base to the right of the camp, protecting them on at least one flank. The forest was somewhat thin in the area around the knoll, making a surprise attack difficult. Although he would have preferred to have both their flanks protected, the spot was as defensible as any they were likely to find. Given a little luck, they should be safe.
He immediately began giving orders to improve it though. When it got right down to it, he didn’t believe in luck.
It was over a week before the horses had recovered enough to travel again. Storm was getting worried. The week spent waiting for Sodan to get over his heart attack, and now another week or more waiting for the horses to heal, added to the time they’d spent crossing the Plains of Aroon, was nearly equal to the length of time their entire journey should have taken in the first place. Fall was quickly turning into winter; here in the mountains they’d already had frost on the ground three mornings in a row. Good weather was no longer a sure bet. The higher they climbed, the worse the odds would become and an early snow could strand them all winter if it was heavy enough. Both Durin and Ralt shared his gloomy outlook on things. Several times Storm had found the dwarf standing on a high rock smelling the air with a grim look on his face.
The men, by contrast, were unaccountably cheerful. They laughed and shouted to each other as they broke camp to resume their journey, acting like children on a holiday outing. They gave Ogden some good-natured ribbing about his uselessness because of his broken leg, they did little impromptu jigs and Thomas even tried to sing some barracks diddy until they pelted him with pine cones to stop his caterwauling.
Storm couldn’t believe they were this ignorant about winter travel even this far south. Didn’t they know what could happen? Durin caught sight of his sour expression as he finished kicking out the fire. “What did you expect?” he rumbled. “They’re city folk, born and bred.”
“Not Thomas,” he objected.
Durin sniffed to show what he thought about the irrepressible guardsman. “Never expect good sense from a gambler,” he threw over his shoulder as he stalked away.
Storm couldn’t think of anything to say to that. He swung up into the saddle with a searching glance at the cloudy sky overhead. It didn’t feel like snow but you could never be sure. “Are they ready yet, Thomas?”
“Ready ta go, Cap’em!” he called merrily. “You just give the word and we’ll burn up the road!”
“Move them out then,” he replied. “Flankers take position. Let’s go.”
Despite his misgivings about the men they quickly fell back into their trail routine. Whatever shortcomings they might have, discipline wasn’t one of them. They made good time and by noon they were climbing through a high mountain pass to drop into the shallow valley beyond. The Plains of Aroon vanished as they entered fully into the mountains surrounding Ingold. Although the first pass marked the official border of Ingold they still had another fifty leagues of treacherous, winding road ahead of them before they encountered any villages.
They reached the far end of the small valley then started up another steep incline, once again switch-backing their way up the mountain. At the top of each incline was another valley, or sometimes just a broad meadow leading to yet another slope. Like a series of giant steps, Storm often thought.
Navigating them was old hat, giving him time to reflect on the lessons Ralt had been teaching him throughout their enforced delay.
“Gerald only taught me a little about Ghibbores,” he explained one night as they sat up around the watch fire as had become their custom. Durin lounged nearby, listening intently. “Mainly because they don’t come along very often, like people born with one green eye and one blue eye; it’s rare. So naturally, there’s not much written about them.”
Storm nodded his understanding, “That’s the way it always is.”
Ralt tugged his cloak tighter around him; the nights were getting cooler. “Well, I’ve already told you their power is revealed in their twelfth year or once every twelve years after that. Besides being naturally attuned to the weave of magic their other senses are also enhanced, turned up a notch if you will, including what some would call your ‘sixth’ sense,” He shot a glance at Storm, “something you seem to have.”
“All my life,” he shrugged. He grinned at them. “And its saved my life enough times too!”
Pipe smoke was wreathed around Durin’s head. He waved it away. “Including your life on Elder Earth?”
Storm glanced around quickly to make sure none of the men were awake to hear them. “Of course. I told you I was a soldier in two giant wars. Without it, I’d have been dead a dozen times over on Iwo Jima alone.” He saw their confusion and added, “An island battlefield.”
“Ah.” Ralt let it go even though Storm could see a million questions behind his eyes. “The last thing Gerald mentioned was that Ghibbore always seem to have a, I don’t know, a core of magic burning inside them. You certainly do but it’s not like any magic I’ve ever seen before. My detection spell showed that much.”
“What’s it fer?” Durin interjected quizzically. “What do ye do with it?
The wizard shrugged. “Not a clue. Storm is the Ghibbore, why don’t you ask him?” They both looked at him.
He held up his hands defensively. “Hey! Don’t ask me. This is all new to me too you know. Hey, sometimes I’m not even sure I believe it yet.”
He shook his head at the memory. Part of him did believe it but what was he supposed to do about it? Magic, as displayed and performed by Ralt, obviously did exist, but wielding it himself was still a bit much to wrap his head around. He stayed away from those thoughts as much as possible. He didn’t like the theological implications either – yet another subject he avoided as much as possible since Lydia’s death.
They made camp that night in one of the high meadows, shivering as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the warmth of the day vanishing as though someone had just reached out and turned it off. The next morning the men were more subdued as they broke camp – wolves had been heard howling in the night.
Almost immediately they dropped into a deep valley cut by the rushing Toagee River. They reached the bottom without incident and easily forded the river. The deepest spot in the ford was barely two feet deep; a bad sign Storm thought. It meant an early winter for sure. He saw Durin eyeing the water level as well and knew he wasn’t the only one anticipating trouble.
After crossing the river they stopped so the dwarf could check the wagon for damage. Ralt leaned down from his seat while Durin examined the undercarriage. “Is it just my imagination or was that too easy?” His voice was pitched low to keep it from carrying.
Storm cast a quick look over his shoulder at the men. They were too far away to hear. “It was too easy,” he replied quietly in the same voice. “It should have been at least three cubits deep, maybe more.” Trust a rancher to spot the signs of an early winter, he thought, even a part-elven rancher turned wizard.
“I don’t like it.”
“So what’s to like?” Storm snorted. “All we can do is keep going and hope the weather holds.”
“Hoping fer good weather,” Durin grumbled as he rolled out from under the wagon, “is worse than hoping for lucky dice. The wagons’ in good shape,” he added.
That was all he needed to hear. He started them up the other side of the valley, pushing the horses as hard as he dared. He didn’t share Durin’s pessimistic outlook but he knew the odds were against them. They should have already been in Robling by now. Speed was the only way they could beat the weather.
Incredibly, their luck held the rest of the day and the next as well. It was mid-afternoon when they crested a broad plateau called Oak Flats, just seven or eight leagues from the small town of Breckinridge. Once past that the roads would improve tremendously. Wow, he thought, we just might make it after all.
Then he saw the farm.
The road was winding through the great stands of oak trees that gave the place its name. The trees ended abruptly at the edge of a clear field, plowed in neat furrows. A split rail fence lined the road on either side. Drying corn stalks rustled in the light wind. Beyond the corn, they could see part of the roof of a large building about half a league ahead.
The men gave a loud whoop of delight when they saw it. Farms meant villages nearby, with the promise of a hotel with real beds for a change. Broad grins broke out everywhere.
Storm heard their eager chatter as if from a long way off. The moment he saw the farm he was seized by a deep sense of foreboding. He knew instantly something was wrong, that he was looking at a place of death. Island hopping through the Pacific in World War II had taught him to recognize the signs, even without his sixth sense, and they were no different here. Casting a quick glance around revealed nothing out of the ordinary, no obvious ambushes that he could find. Nonetheless, he found himself loosening his swords in their scabbards.
“Hey!” Ralt hissed. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head. “Something’s not right.”
Ralt’s eyes narrowed as he took in Storm’s grim expression. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I don’t make mistakes about these things. Something’s not right,” he repeated firmly. He kept his eyes fixed on the house as it slowly emerged from behind the corn.
Durin noticed their concern. He nudged his horse closer. “What’s wrong?” he rumbled quietly.
The wizard rolled his eyes. “I don’t know. Storm thinks there’s something wrong up there.”
Ralt glanced at the cautious warrior sniffing the breeze by the wagon. “I don’t think he knows. Just – something.”
Storm ignored them. His soldier-warrior instincts now fully aroused, he began noticing little things; the absence of smoke curling up from the chimney, the empty fields that should have been filled with people gathering the last of the corn before winter descended, the lack of sound coming from the farm, no dogs barking, no chickens clucking – nothing at all. In the distance, he could faintly hear chimes tinkling in the wind. It was the only sound in the vast silence.
“Everyone hold it,” he hissed, drawing his great hand-and-a-half sword.
The men glanced back at him in confusion, taking in the dangerous glint in his narrowed eyes and the naked blade gleaming in the watery sunlight.
“Cap’em?” Thomas ventured uncertainly.
“Spread out,” he growled. “Two squads, swordsmen in front, archers to the rear. Ralt, take Ogden’s horse. He and Sodan will stay with the wagon. You and Durin come with me.”
The men merely stared at him in confusion.
“NOW!” he snarled savagely.
They blanched then scurried to obey.
Ralt had not been hesitant though; he handed the reins over to Ogden then mounted his horse bareback. He wheeled it around to Storm’s left. Beneath his breath, he was mouthing arcane syllables and words of Power. Durin also responded instantly, taking up position on Storm’s right, his great, war axe at the ready, glimmering with power.
For a moment Storm debated with himself whether to advance on foot. On horseback they towered above the corn, revealing their presence to anyone who might still be around the farm. That and the clip-clopping of their horse’s hooves would rob them of the element of surprise. It only took him an instant to discard the idea of approaching on foot. His men, city-bred that they were, couldn’t possibly have the knack of slipping quietly through the dry corn stalks without making noise. If they had no chance of approaching unheard then it was best to be mounted; a warrior on horseback had a three-to-one advantage over a man on the ground, even more, if he sat on a trained war-horse like Specter.
“Slow advance. Look sharp for ambushes,” he ordered.
His seriousness had penetrated by now. The men looked warily at the fields to either side of them, finally noting the ominous lack of movement.
They moved forward slowly, faces tense.
The horse’s hooves sounded loud as kettledrums in the still quiet surrounding them. Storm knew it was only an illusion created by their mounting sense of dread, but it was hard to shake the feeling that the noise of their approach was echoing back off the mountains around them, alerting the whole world to their presence.
More and more of the farm was revealed as they drew closer. Storm began to see signs of damage. Part of the roof on the main building was gone, the edges black and charred. His gut tightened as they left the protection of the corn and emerged into clear sight of the farm.
They stopped short at the sight before them.
At one time the farmhouse had been an imposing, two-story structure built of thick oak and gray field stone. It must have been beautiful in its heyday.
It had been gutted by fire. A huge section of the roof had caved in and one entire wall was destroyed. The interior, visible through numerous holes, was a charred ruin. Part of a stone chimney had fallen inward, strewing rubble everywhere. The heat from the fire must have been tremendous. The ground around the house was blackened for several yards in all directions.
The barn, off to the right of the main house stood open, the cavernous doors ripped off their hinges and thrown aside. Four bodies, mutilated and nude, hung twisting from ropes tied to the top of the doorway. The carcasses of pigs, cows, chickens and several dogs littered the yard, feathered with arrows.
Closer to the cornfield were two, squat granaries. In the tight space between them were more bodies sprawled in a dry lake of blood. Storm’s trained eyes flickered over them, seeing how they had run into the tight confines to limit the invader’s ability to get at them. He pictured the desperate battle that had taken place, scythes and hand knives against swords, spears, and arrows. In his mind’s eye the dead rose, re-fought their last fight, screamed in their death throes then fell once more to the bloody ground.
Storm moved ahead of the men, motioning them to follow behind, his eyes continuing to note every sign in the dusty yard. As they drew near he saw where a scuffle had taken place, a pool of dried blood telling the grim outcome. Two sets of footprints led to the spot, but only one set walked away. The prints led to a large well. Peering down inside he saw two bodies, dimly visible in the reddish water at the bottom. The sharp odor of smoke and charred wood, still recent, assaulted his nostrils as he drew up in front of the ruined house, Specter’s harness jingling somberly in the stillness. Leather creaked as he dismounted.
His men swung silently down out of their saddles, spreading out behind him as he cautiously climbed the stone steps up to the front door and peered inside. Up close the devastation was worse. Three burned skeletons lay crushed under a charred beam, another was visible further back in what had once been the kitchen. Stepping high over a pile of rubble in the door he slowly circled the house, examining everything closely. Debris crunched underfoot as he explored. Here and there he found utensils or bits of pottery, burned and cracked. He was reminded of the way French villages looked in World War I after the Germans were finished with them. Finally, he returned to the front room, shaking his head.
Outside, his men were slowly picking their way through the bodies, still without speaking, as though speech were somehow an insult to the dead.
Coming out of the house he met Durin at the foot of the porch steps. The dwarf’s face was set in grim lines. “Tis a terrible thing that’s happened here,” he rumbled softly. “No matter how many times I see it, it still horrifies me to see such cruelty.” He gestured at the mutilated bodies in the barn door.
Storm nodded agreement. Such scenes held a terrible power that radiated evil. He started to order the bodies cut down when he saw a figure emerge from the barn, a bow held at the ready. He bellowed warning as he leapt past the startled dwarf, sword flashing in the air.
The men spun around to him, saw where he was looking then whipped back in that direction. Several archers dropped to one knee to allow the rest to fire over their heads.
The figure in the doorway tensed, drawing the arrow all the way back.
The tableau held for a frozen moment.
The figure was a woman, Storm realized. She was tall for a woman, only four inches shorter than his own six feet, two inches. In Gaian terms, she was half a span less than four cubits. Gray eyes were set in a lovely face tense with battle readiness. Her long, black hair was braided in the manner favored by the horse tribes of the great Biqah prairie. She wore brown riding breeches, knee-high black boots, and a plain, white shirt. Under her shirt which struggled to contain her full breasts, he could see the shimmer of crysmeir armor, the crystalline armor the horse people were renowned for; as strong as steel, it weighed only a fraction as much, so lightweight it floated. The secret of its manufacture was one they guarded well. A brown, fur-lined cloak dropped behind her nearly to the ground. She had tossed it back over one shoulder, freeing her bow arm. He recognized her powerful bow as one of the new, re-curve bows the Biqah tribes had been using lately.
Why would a Biqah archer be here in the mountains of Ingold? What was she doing here at the sight of this slaughter? The Biqah were nearly as fierce and wild as the northern barbarians Storm had been raised with, but their feudal society had a strong sense of honor, refusing to prey on the helpless, dealing sternly with any who breached their strict sense of fair play. He found it hard to believe one of them would turn so completely against the principles instilled in them from childhood.
Still . . .
What was she doing here so far from the great prairie? Alone?
Or was she alone?
Unlike his men, the Biqah were experts in the art of silent movement. Whole tribes of them could move through the grassy plains of their homeland without disturbing so much as a single leaf. How many of them might be lurking in the corn rows beyond the fence? He had no illusions that their chain armor could stop one of the gray fletched arrows from their mighty bows.
His gaze flickered over the corpses hanging beside her. The fletching on the arrows protruding from them was red. Would they deliberately use different colors to throw off suspicion?
Durin’s voice rumbled angrily across the yard. “Drop yer weapon and stand down or ye’ll never leave that doorway alive!”
“So you can rape and torture me the way you did these poor innocents? I’d rather die where I stand.” Her voice was a smooth contralto with a touch of huskiness to it. If she felt any fear she hid it well.
“Oh yeah?” Thomas sneered. “Is this the part where we’re supposed to believe you had nothing to do with this and lower our guard so you can slaughter us in our sleep?” He pulled his own bow back another notch. “Drop it now!”
Her face darkened with rage. “How dare you! The Biqah are not murderers!”
Storm had had enough. “Perhaps not,” he barked, striding forward. “But this needs explaining.” He gestured at the carnage around them.
Her eyes flickered over him for an instant before returning to the men aiming arrows at her breast. “I found them this way a few minutes ago. I was checking to see if any were still alive when I heard you approach and hid in here.” She held her stance all the while, her eyes constantly roving from one archer to another.
“I would like to believe you,” Storm said slowly. “But we cannot afford to take chances. Besides, the Biqah do not travel alone. Your tribesmen could be watching us from ambush as we speak.” He inclined his head at the cornfields. His men shifted nervously at his words, giving the fields a wary glance.
The woman had now identified him as the leader. She looked him over carefully. “You know the Biqah? Who are you?”
His men bristled at her presumption but he waved them to silence. Despite appearances, he was starting to believe she was as innocent as they were in this matter. “The Captain of this band of voyagers,” he said, deliberately withholding his name. “I have met with the Biqah on occasion. I have never known them to slaughter the helpless.”
His omission didn’t escape her. “Does your voyage have a destination?”
He nodded without saying anything.
She watched him for a moment more, obviously thinking it over. “You’re no city man,” she told him. Her brow furrowed in confusion. “You dress like one, but you act, and talk, like a Northerner, a sell-sword or soldier.”
“I come from north of where we stand,” he agreed. The corners of her mouth twitched. His answer encompassed over half of Gaia. “Why does one of the Biqah travel alone, if you are alone?” He was nearly certain she was, in fact, traveling by herself. Her tribe would never have waited this long to reveal their strength of numbers.
She shrugged, her bow never wavering from its aim. “I travel on behalf of the Biqah,” she admitted.
It was his turn to suppress a smile. One vague answer deserved another, he thought. He had always liked the Biqah, and this woman was a splendid example of the breed. He sheathed his sword with a ringing smack. His men glanced sidelong at him, lowering their weapons reluctantly. “Fair skies and green grasses,” he said, giving her a traditional Biqah greeting.
She dropped her aim slowly. “Fair skies and green grasses,” she replied. According to Biqah custom, it would now be rude if she didn’t introduce herself. “I am Lorelei of the Abeytu tribe, daughter of Crowsotarri.” In their language Abeytu meant Greenleaf.
Storm bowed shortly, hiding a twinge of unease. Crowsotarri, which meant Wind in His Hair, was the man Storm had become blood brothers with. He was the Chieftain of the Abeytu tribe. He’d met him during his last trip through the prairie a few years ago. What was his daughter doing here? Lorelei meant Child Of Heaven, an obvious reference to her great beauty. But it also had a second, older meaning; it referred to one who was touched by heaven, blessed by heaven itself. The Abeytu nation was one of the most respected on the great Biqah prairie. According to Crowsotarri, they’d also been one of the first to adopt the worship of the Lord of Light, although with considerable backsliding from time to time. If they intended her name in the older, more traditional sense, she was no ordinary Biqah. Her presence here was not a good sign.
“My father sends me to Vaneer to find one named Storm of the Bear Clan,” she continued. “Let me pass and I will call you friend.”
The men turned to Storm in astonishment. “Hey, Cap’em! She’s talking about you!” Thomas ejaculated. Durin and Ralt exchanged unreadable glances then turned to look at Storm.
Lorelei started. She stared at him in wonder. “You’re Storm of the Bear Clan? Truly?”
He cursed under his breath. Crowsotarri had saved three of his men from snake bite poison during that trip across the Biqah. Storm’s sense of honor had compelled him to offer his own aid in return if it should ever be needed. Now it looked as if Crowsotarri was about to call in the marker. “I am Storm, formerly of the Bear Clan,” he admitted reluctantly, stressing the ‘formerly’ part. “I was living in Vaneer for a time, but no more.”
A brilliant smile flashed across her face. It was immediately replaced by a look of grim concern. “Then I have an urgent message for you from my father. He bids you come to him. We must go back at once.”
He knew it! “Cut those bodies down,” he ordered before his men could react to her surprising announcement. “Lorelei and I have to talk.” He strode over quickly and grabbed her arm, steering her around behind the barn.
“What is there to talk about?” she asked, jerking away from him. “Father said you promised your aid if he should ever need it. He needs it.”
Storm ground his teeth. The corn stalks waving gently in the breeze mocked his frustration. “He will get it. But not today,” he added as she turned to leave.
She stopped, a hurt expression on her face. It rapidly changed to anger. “Have you no honor?” she spat. “You would renege on a promise without even knowing what my father asks of you?” Her hands balled themselves into tight fists.
“I didn’t say that!” he thundered. “I said, ‘not today’!”
Her face turned to stone. “Why not?” she asked in a deadly monotone.
“Because I am honor bound to see these people safely to Robling,” he told her, forbearing to mention he was getting paid for his services. The Biqah didn’t equate honor with paid duty. To them, there was nothing wrong with leaving a job half done when honor called them to another task. The Bear Clan held similar notions but he’d long known honor came in many different forms. “These city folk have no experience in the wilds. Leaving them alone would be cowardly. Besides, our wagon carries a cargo certain to bring trouble before our journey is over.”
Her face softened somewhat. “Robling is on the road to where my father waits,” she mused. “I had to pass through it on my way here. You can fulfill your duty to them and my father at the same time. Very well. But,” her eyes darkened, “I saw no wagon.”
“We left it behind while we investigated the farm,” he said absently, sensing he’d won this round. Were those hoof prints leading into the cornfield?
Lorelei nodded, needing no further explanation as she fell in behind him. The Biqah also left the weak behind when approaching a likely battle. In their minds a wagon was worse than weak, it was an unneeded hindrance.
Storm crouched over the double row of tracks leading away from the slaughter behind them. “I make it ten of them,” he said, tracing a print in the dirt. “Riding slow.” Something about the tracks tugged at his memory. What was it?
Lorelei ran a practiced eye over the tracks. “Yesterday, maybe the day before,” she added. “You will avenge the helpless ones?”
“Yes.” His voice rang like steel. The bodies in the well had been children. Those who killed children deserved no mercy. He stood up, brushing his trousers off. “We’ll track them as far as we can while my men take care of the bodies. Then tomorrow we’ll make them wish they had never been born.” He didn’t bother asking if she would help. The daughter of Crowsotarri could be counted on to insist on taking part in punishing the invaders.
He wasn’t disappointed.
According to Ralt, one of the invaders was a wizard. He pointed out unusual wounds on two of the bodies hanging in the barn door. To Storm’s new senses the evidence Ralt saw was plainly visible; a lingering haze of power, unmistakable in origin. The same haze lingered over the barn doors, torn off their hinges – more magic.
A few weeks ago Storm would have railed against power-mad sorcerers trying to conquer the world. Now he merely nodded, glad he had a wizard of his own to use against the enemy.
He ordered a mass grave dug for the unfortunate farmers, the burial to be held at sundown that evening. As the commander, it would once again be his responsibility to say the words over them. First Boldric and now this, he thought, shaking his head at the unpleasant task ahead of him.
The bodies of the animals were carried out into the cornfield downwind of the house. A large area was cleared and a pyre was lit to dispose of them. The house was unusable, so the barn was commandeered as a base of operations. Thomas was put in charge of getting things in order while Storm scouted the invader’s trail, accompanied by Durin, Ralt, and Lorelei.
They had little difficulty following them. The raiders had cut straight through the corn without making any attempt at concealment or hiding their tracks. Once past the fields, the trail led into the forest. Far ahead up on the slopes of the mountain, a dormant weather-beaten volcano, was an old lava flow. Once they were certain the raiders were heading for it they turned around and went back.
“Lots of caves and tunnels in a mess like that,” Durin informed them. “It be certain that’s where they’re hiding out.”
“A place like that would be easy to defend but hard to attack wouldn’t it?” Ralt asked.
Lorelei nodded to him. “Yes on both counts. No doubt that’s why they selected it.” The Biqah had long experience with wizards. Unlike Storm’s people, they got along with them quite well. Many of the tribes even had Shamans who possessed wizard-like powers.
On the way back to the farm Ralt filled her in on the reason for their trip and the possible demonic consequences. Like Storm she was horrified at the prospect of an encounter with a denizen of Hell, but unlike him, she had other, more prosaic concerns as well. “You’ll have to fight a demon by yourself? What do you think the rest of us will be doing? Watching the show?”
“You might as well,” Ralt told her pragmatically. “Only magic, or one touched or blessed by the gods, can strike a demon. Durin’s axe is imbued with magic so he can certainly harm it if he wishes. The rest of you don’t have that advantage though. Your weapons will just bounce aside or miss altogether.”
“My name is Lorelei,” she said indignantly. “It means ‘Child of Heaven’. I was so named because I have been blessed as only a true child of heaven can be. Two different Shamans confirmed this at my birth. Therefore I will stand at your side when this monster from the Abyss shows up,” she concluded firmly.
During her short recital Storm heard ‘Ghibbore’ echoing in his head. Their conversation of the previous week came back to haunt him. Ralt’s description of a core of strange magic burning in him played around the edges of his mind. No one knew what it was for or how it was used; what if it was up to the individual to decide what to use it for – like hitting a demon who could only be attacked by magic or someone who’d been blessed? In fact, now that he thought about it, maybe coming through whatever opening or portal lay in the Bermuda Triangle had been a blessing in disguise. Hadn’t he been old and rundown, ready to cash it in? Now here he was, young and strong in his prime again with a possible 200-year lifespan ahead of him. If that wasn’t a blessing, what was? It was hard to square with Lydia’s death but what other choice did he have? “Maybe I’ve been blessed too,” he muttered. “Several ways.”
Ralt and Durin exchanged an unreadable glance. Lorelei just frowned in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Storm had a hunch she could be trusted with the story about his past. He realized with a start that even his hunches had become stronger and more frequent since the night of the stampede. It was like someone had turned him up a notch, like turning up the volume on a TV. Putting it aside for a moment who that Someone might be, he gave her the same brief version of the life story he’d given to Ralt and Durin.
Her eyes were lit with an inner fire by the time he finished. “You must be touched by heaven,” she said eagerly, without any of the confusion Storm felt swirling within him. “I will be proud to fight this demon at your side, Lord Storm of Elder Earth. Then it will be four of us standing between him and his prey when he only expects one.”
“Uh, we don’t know what any demon might be expecting when it shows up,” Ralt cautioned her.
“Good,” she said, misunderstanding him. “Then he’ll be completely unprepared for our attack.” She leaned forward intently. “I’ve heard of the Ghibbore being heroes of old but no one ever told me what that word meant. You’re sure it means mighty man?” she quizzed Ralt.
“Absolutely,” he confirmed.
She nodded and muttered something too low for them to hear. It sounded like she said, “The prophecy,” before smiling mysteriously to herself.
Storm listened with only half an ear, rolling around in his mind the way she said ‘Lord Storm’ as if he was a grand Count or King. He found he liked the sound of it.
After the burial service, a strategy session was held in the cavernous barn. Over half of it was filled with endless baskets of corn, picked from the fields around the farm before the bandits attacked. The fresh smell of the husks and silk permeated the whole place. One corner near the front doors held stacks of empty baskets patiently waiting to be filled. A small mountain of hay bales, fodder for the animals, occupied the back section of the barn near the stalls. Some of them were dragged out so the men could sit on them, while others preferred to perch on the railings between the stalls. Lorelei was content to sit cross-legged on the ground in the manner of her people since time immemorial.
Sodan was the only one not present. He had eaten only a light meal before retiring complaining of new pains in his chest. Durin’s concern was obvious but Sodan waved him away saying that he would call if there was any need.
Bright torches illuminated the interior of the barn as the sun’s golden light faded away. Storm stood in the center of the loose circle they formed around him while he outlined the situation. “Remember,” he finished, "these bandits have probably been around for quite a while so it’s very likely they’ve had time to fortify their hideout a dozen times over. Durin?”
The blocky dwarf nodded as he stood up. “During the last year, we’ve been getting reports and dispatches about increasing bandit activity around Ingold. Storm and I agree that the ones here are probably one of those bands, which is why we think they’ve had time to reinforce their caves in the old lava flow up there. Sodan heard that King Roderick sent out patrols, or beefed up the ones that are already in place but so far we haven’t heard of them finding anything. Problem is, it’s not really a big deal to him since most of the attacks are happening on the outskirts of the kingdom. Roderick is getting old and a few outlying farms just aren’t important to him,” Durin snorted contemptuously. He spat and continued, “Still, people are starting to complain and those patrols are out there, so our little gang of bandits is going to be very much on their guard. Surprising them won’t be easy.”
“Exactly,” Storm agreed heartily, taking over again, “which is why Lorelei and I will have to go up there tonight to scout around and see what we can find. We’re better at moving quietly than any of the rest of you, so it has to be us,” he added quickly as they started to protest. “Ralt says that he’s got some magic which will help us get in and out without being seen. Once we know what we’re up against we can make better plans.”
“What kind of magic,” one the men wanted to know.
“That’s a good question, William. I still don’t know myself.” Storm looked at their resident wizard. “You want to tell us?”
Ralt was leaning comfortably against a wooden post, worn smooth with time. He spit out the piece of straw he was chewing on like the rancher he was raised as and sat up. “Have you ever heard of invisibility?”
Gasps sounded from around the room. “By The Six,” somebody muttered.
Ralt smiled benignly at them. He held up four short sticks. “I’ve put the spell on these.” He passed two of them to Lorelei and the other two to Storm. “You’ll each have two invisibility spells to protect you. When you’re ready to use one of them, just break one of the twigs. The spell will last for two candles or until you attack someone.” Time in many places was still measured in the old way, by how long it took a ten-inch candle to burn down. From sunrise to sunrise, one full day, was generally considered about twelve candles, so each twig would give them fours hours of invisibility before the spell wore off. “If one isn’t enough you’ve each got a backup with another two candles worth of invisibility on it.”
Storm was stunned at how casually Ralt discussed this kind of power. He’d never dreamed wizards could do something like this.
Lorelei tucked her twigs into her belt. “Will we be able to see each other?”
“The magic lets you see each other a little bit, kind of like a faint outline,” Ralt said, lounging back on his bale of hay. He shifted around until the post he was leaning against was once more centered in his back and went back to chewing on his piece of straw. Storm thought all he needed was a pair of overalls and a straw hat to look like a hayseed farmer from East Texas. An overly handsome Hollywood version of a farmer, that is.
He brought himself back to the present. “I want double guards tonight while we’re gone. Durin will be in charge until we get back. If we don’t . . .” he shrugged. “Then he’s in charge, period.”
None of them were surprised by that grim possibility. Scouting a fortified position was something they all understood was risky. Discovery meant certain death.
With that possibility in mind, Storm decided to wear both his swords for the night’s work. In close quarters combat, he knew his two-handed style of battle gave him a distinct advantage over his adversaries. For greater distances, he took a brace of spears. He and Lorelei both removed their chain vests to prevent the clinking metal from giving them away during their mission. Biqah crysmeir wasn’t metal but it made just as much noise and on their current mission stealth was more important than armor. Besides, since the advent of the longbow twenty years ago, chain just wasn’t as useful as it once was. Lorelei took her bow of course, along with one of the sabers her people preferred to use when fighting on horseback.
Once they were ready, they left immediately, riding through the last bit of sunlight lingering in the sky. By the time they reached the edge of the forest, it was pitch black. They didn’t bother trying to follow the trail in the darkness. Instead, they headed up the mountainside for the lava flow where they knew the bandits had to be hiding. Both of them were experienced woodsmen and their horses were familiar with their needs from long association; in less than an hour, they reached the bottom of the lava flow.
In the light from the half moon that floated overhead they saw the flow was fairly new, with hard, jagged edges and spikes sticking up; perhaps the old volcano wasn’t as dormant as they’d first thought. In any event, Storm wasn’t eager to ride a horse across such broken terrain, but the bandits wouldn’t want to try it either. They’d choose the path of least resistance. All Storm and Lorelei had to do was find it and it would lead them right to the bandit hideout.
They explored the edge of the flow together, staying close enough to come to each others aid in case of attack. It was rough going but eventually, they found what they were looking for. It appeared to be a lava tube, missing its upper half. The bottom part was smooth and rounded, forcing anyone using it to travel single file. Lorelei and Storm agreed this had to be the entrance to the bandit lair since it was the only path they’d found that could conceivably be used as a horse trail. They tethered their horses back in the edge of the forest, ate a quick snack then started up the tube.
At first, there was a lot of cover in the form of bushes growing along the upper sides of the path. Before long however, the bushes began to thin out. As far as they could see ahead of them the tube ran in nearly a straight line. Once they left the cover of the surrounding brush they would be easily visible to anyone watching from above.
Storm decided it was time to give Ralt’s invisibility spell a test. They each took one of their twigs and broke them with a dry snap.
The results were amazing.
In less time than it took to draw in a single breath their bodies became transparent as glass, then even that faded until there was nothing left but a slight, wavering outline where each of them stood. Storm extended his arm out in front of him. He could barely see the outline of his arm and hand, but the ground under it was clearly visible. He could see right through himself! It was as if he’d turned into a ghost. He looked at Lorelei, barely able to make out where she was even though she was scant feet in front of him. He heard her choke back an awed gasp. He smiled broadly, knowing she couldn’t see it. He was glad to know she wasn’t as completely unflappable as she pretended to be.
“Wouldn’t it be great to run around naked like this?” she giggled suddenly. “You could flap your rear end at some old biddy in Nahor and she’d never see it.”
Storm resisted the urge to chuckle. “But if you’re invisible so she can’t see you, she won’t even know you’re there or that you’re naked. What fun is that?” he countered playfully.
“Good point,” she admitted. “You men are always so practical,” she teased lightly.
“It’s our middle name,” he chuckled, turning back to their trek up the tube. “Come on.”
It headed straight for a towering cliff that was the outer cone of the volcano that created the lava flow. The closer they came to the cliff, the less damage there was to the upper portion of the tube. It closed in overhead until the two sides met and they were walking through a tunnel like a giant pipe. Storm realized with a start that if this was indeed the correct trail then it was possible there was only one way in or out of the bandit’s lair. If so, it was a defender’s dream come true; a small, enclosed passage that forced any attackers to advance single file and provided absolutely no cover of any kind. Anyone trying to attack up this tunnel would be a sitting duck.
He and Lorelei paused to discuss it in low whispers.
“If this is the right trail, then the gods be with us,” she commented. “We couldn’t take this place with a thousand troops, let alone thirteen.”
“It’s one long, killing zone,” he agreed darkly. “They could pick you off one at a time and there would be nothing you could do about it.”
“Perfect place for booby traps too,” she added. “There’s no way to go around them.”
Despite the desperate situation, Storm found it a relief to finally have a kindred soul to talk to. Ralt and Durin were both fine men in their own way and he was forced to admit to a growing sense of friendship with them, but still . . . they weren’t like him. He and Lorelei were from the same mold, they’d grown up with the same love of adventure; he could see it in her plain as day. He knew without asking that she’d have been a boon companion during his twenty years of wandering after Lydia died, maybe even more than a companion. He stifled that thought quickly. Back to work, he told himself sternly. “I can check for magical traps,” he muttered to her, “but as for the other kind, well . . .”
“. . . we’ll just have to go on instinct,” they both said together. What was I just saying, he thought to himself? They shared a quiet chuckle, then headed up the tunnel once more, with redoubled caution.
They inched forward in the pitch, black confines of the tunnel, feeling their way along, alert for the first sign of danger or discovery. If anything happened, it would come at them with lightning speed that allowed no time for misjudgments. Any mistake would be their last. Storm worried that a patrol could come marching down the tunnel, from either direction. If from ahead, they could simply turn and run, hoping they weren’t heard. If from behind, they would have no choice but to forge blindly ahead and hope for the best. In their exposed position their choices were sharply limited. After nearly thirty minutes they’d covered perhaps two hundred yards in the Stygian darkness.
Storm was beginning to wonder how far they had to go when he saw a faint glow up ahead. There was still no light in the tunnel so he knew it had to be magic. He stopped.
Sensitive to his every movement, Lorelei stopped as well. He reached back for her hand, then tapped on it in drum talk, “Something ahead. Wait here.” In his mind, he’d always thought of it as a form of Morse Code. She tapped back an affirmative.
He eased down the tunnel until he could see the coiled spell hanging in midair at chest level. Whatever it was, it was designed to catch anyone coming close. He studied it intently, trying to decipher what he saw. There was a mix of colors with amber the predominant shade. It coiled in on itself like a Gordian knot, so complex it made his head hurt trying to follow it. There was a smoky haze to it as if an invisible fire burned somewhere within. Thin filaments about three feet long trailed off from the central mass in all directions. Tiny green lights flashed through it at random intervals, and more of them raced up the filaments to the center of the spell. He considered it. Green was the universal color for ‘situation normal’ while red signified danger. Were the green lights moving in the thing a signal for it not to fire? He crouched down. There were about two feet of clearance between the floor and the tips of the sinister-looking filaments. Could they squirm under them safely if they didn’t touch them? He sighed in frustration at his lack of knowledge.
The filaments stiffened at the sound of his exhalation, the green lights changing to yellow. He froze, not daring to breathe. He watched the dangerous thing, acutely aware he stood on the edge of disaster. His lungs began to burn with the need for air. Still, he held his breath, afraid to even twitch.
After what felt like an eternity the filaments began waving gently again and the lights gradually went back to green. He let his breath out slowly then breathed in just as slowly. He felt lightheaded from lack of oxygen. He waited until his head stopped spinning then backed away one inch at a time.
“What took you so long?” Lorelei drum talked into his hand when he got back to her.
“It’s a spell of some kind. It looks like it responds to physical contact and to sound,” he tapped back. “We have to crawl under it without making any noise or we’re dead.”
“Understood,” she responded.
When they reached the spell-trap he went belly down on the rocky floor, pulling her down with him. “If I squeeze your hand, freeze. Don’t even breathe,” he tapped on her palm. She squeezed his hand in response. They put their weapons on their backs away from contact with the floor and started under it.
For an unguessable time, they moved less than an inch at a time. Storm pushed himself forward a fraction of an inch with his toes, pulling with his fingers at the same time. He rocked gently back and forth, squirming up the tunnel like an inchworm. Behind him, he knew Lorelei was doing the same thing. After every fractional movement, he slowly turned his head to see what the spell-trap was doing. Every time it was flashing green he moved forward another quarter of an inch. Three times it flashed yellow in response to some tiny movement or sound it detected. Each time they froze, praying it would ignore them and go back to its normal routine. Each time their luck held and they resumed their torturous journey.
At last, they passed the hideous thing. Storm hurried them several yards up the tunnel as fast as he could then signaled a break. They slumped down against the curving walls, exhausted from their harrowing task.
“Now I know what a snail feels like,” Lorelei tapped in his hand. It turned out it had taken them over an hour to traverse a distance of six feet.
Sooner than either of them would have liked he got them up and moving again. They were taking too long getting into the hideout. Their invisibility would be wearing off and they still had to pass the miserable thing on the way back out again. His heart sank as he contemplated a repeat of what they’d just been through.
The spell-trap was proof this was the bandit’s hideout. Despite the fact they could have erected more traps he had to gamble they had gotten overconfident in the months they’d been here and were relying on just that one spell. If they were, he had to admit their confidence was well placed. Even with his ability to see it, it had still been a near thing.
He set a more rapid pace this time, muttering a long unused prayer.
After another hundred yards or so the tunnel began curving slowly to the right. A faint light began to be discernible. The tunnel ran roughly at right angles to their original course for about fifty yards then made an abrupt turn to the left, putting them back on their former heading. They came to a sudden halt.
They found themselves looking down a passageway about fifty feet long that opened into an immense cavern. The floor seemed to be about three four or five below the lip of the tunnel. Scattered around the cavern were a handful of tripods supporting hanging lamps. Only two of them were lit and by their flickering light, they could see two guards standing by the entrance. They carried crossbows which were aimed down the tunnel straight at them.
Storm looked down at himself. His invisibility still held. Even though they stood completely exposed in the middle of the tunnel the guards didn’t see a thing. They continued to pass a pipe back and forth while they talked in low tones of absolute boredom. It was obvious the last thing in the world they expected was an attack.
He pulled Lorelei back around the bend out of sight. “Listen,” he hissed in her ear. “Those guards aren’t expecting anything. There isn’t any room for us to go around them so if we want to search any further we have to kill them – without making any noise. I can get one with a spear; can you get the other?”
She slipped her bow off her back and knocked an arrow. “Left or right?”
He grinned. “Left.”
They stepped out from around the corner as if they’d rehearsed it. Storm’s arm flashed forward at the same time Lorelei’s bow sang its song of death. The guards crumpled to the floor as both of them became visible again. Quickly they pulled the bodies down back down the tunnel and stashed them out of sight. Then they returned to the end of the tunnel to examine the cavern.
It had been formed by a giant air bubble trapped in the molten lava when the volcano erupted who knew how long ago. Storm looked it over. It was about a hundred yards across and perhaps half as high. Light from the flickering oil lamps revealed several more tunnels on the far side of the chamber. A wooden ramp to one side of the main entrance tunnel provided easy access for the horses corralled in the center of the vast room. Their hooves clattered on the stone floor as they moved slowly about the enclosure. A giant pile of hay was stacked nearby and from somewhere they could hear the gurgling of water. Several tables, surrounded by chairs were off to the left, next to what appeared to be a very well equipped field kitchen. Copper pipes, held up by tall tripods, disappeared across the cavern to the far wall, obviously for the purpose of piping water to the kitchen and latrines. There were even several small enclosures that looked like shower stalls.
“All the comforts of home,” Lorelei muttered.
“Looks that way,” he agreed. “Come on, let’s have a look around.”
She nodded silently and they began exploring the giant room. Storm counted the horses in the corral. Twenty-six. Assuming some of them were spares and pack animals, that meant there were between fifteen and twenty raiders. Of course, he and Lorelei had already killed two of them. He filed the thought for future reference then cat-footed over to the kitchen area.
It was pretty much what he expected, except for the presence of a huge, cast-iron, pot-bellied stove. He tried to imagine lugging it through the mountains and up the lava tube, then shook his head in disbelief. What kind of bandits went to the trouble of hauling a stove this heavy up into the mountains? Raiders like this usually traveled light. He threw a questioning glance at Lorelei but she shook her head silently, as puzzled as he was.
He prowled around the latrines and shower stalls but didn’t find anything of interest. He turned away and saw Lorelei stiffen as she approached one of the far passages. She beckoned him over silently.
“What?” he whispered when he got there.
“A barracks room,” she breathed in his ear. “Sounds there’s like six of them in there. All asleep.”
That was both good and bad.
It was good because it gave them a chance to slip in and slit their throats one at a time without waking the others until it was too late. It was bad if Lorelei’s sense of honor prevented her from attacking without waking them and giving them a chance to defend themselves.
Before he could ask the question, she answered it for him.
She leaned her bow against the wall and pulled a dagger out of her boot. “Child killers and rapists deserve no mercy,” she hissed.
He flashed her a quick grin before pulling his own boot dagger.
As a team they slipped into the room, pausing just inside to let their eyes adjust to the dimmer light.
There were six raiders in the room, two on the left, four on the right. Storm considered it for a moment then eased back out into the main chamber to reclaim one of his spears. He pulled a second dagger then gripped the spear in his teeth. Lorelei understood immediately what he intended. As silent as shadows, they slide toward their enemies, Lorelei to the right, Storm to the left. Locking eyes they silently counted off one, two, three!
Storm flung his arms out to either side, slamming a dagger into the throat of each man. They convulsed, blood spurting into the air. Without waiting to see if they were dead he grabbed the spear from his teeth and hurled it at the fourth man on Lorelei’s side of the room. It caught him full in the chest as he sat up sleepily. The impact hurled him back. He bounced against the mattress then rolled off the bunk with a crash. Lorelei’s last man had time for one terrified yell before her bloody dagger ripped his throat apart.
From outside they heard startled grunts as the rest of the bandits began waking up.
Their spy mission was about to become a life-or-death battle.
Storm snarled wordlessly in anger. They bounded outside the barracks room. Lorelei scooped up her bow while he pulled both his swords. Without pausing they barreled into the next chamber to kill the enemy before they got organized.
They skidded to a halt at the sight of bags of gold lying scattered across the floor. Several fine paintings leaned against the wall. Jewel encrusted trinkets occupied the space between the bags. Storm cursed savagely. Wrong room!
They spun, trying to escape before they were cut off.
They were too late.
A salvo of arrows slammed into the walls around them. Lorelei yelped as one sent stone chips spraying into her face when it hit the stone by her head.
“Cover me!” Storm bellowed.
He dove through the doorway, hit and rolled, then was on his feet among them before they could adjust their aim. He saw a raider in front of him; a gray-fletched arrow suddenly grew out of the man’s throat and he spun past him, lashing out with both blades in a flurry of death. A severed head flew through the air. There was no time to think about finesse or tactics. It was a sudden, bloody fight to the finish. A bandit loomed up in front of him. Their swords met in a ringing clash of tempered steel. Storm’s twin blades wove a glittering dance of death in the man’s face. The man’s scream was choked off by a gush of blood as he crashed to the floor.
Storm dove for another man then sheared off as the enemy stared down in shock at the arrow in his chest. From the corner of his eye, he saw one of them sprinting for the exit. Another bandit slashed at him and he had no further time for the escaping raider. Steel rang against steel and he was fighting two of them at once. “Die you scum!” he thundered, flinging himself at them in a mad rage he’d first learned in the hand-to-hand fighting against the Germans in World War I during the Battle of Belleau Woods. Howling in terror, the bandits died beneath his savage attack then, abruptly it was over.
Storm paused, breathing heavily. Bodies littered the floor.
From the last passage, he heard the sound of men moving about. He snarled, moving to finish the last of his enemies, his blood-lust fully aroused. Lorelei grabbed his arm. “Storm, wait! The sorcerer!”
It was a foolhardy move. He nearly took her head off before he recognized her.
He paused, a semblance of sanity returning. “What?”
“The wizard! The one who set the spell-trap. He has to be in there. It’s the only place left!”
His rage bubbled just beneath the surface. Once aroused it was not easily calmed. “Then let’s kill him before he has a chance to raise his spells against us,” he grated through his battle fury.
Lorelei recognized the uselessness of arguing with him in his current state; her people also succumbed to berserker rages from time-to-time. “Go!” she shouted, shoving him toward the last opening. “Kill him while I deal with the rest!”
He needed no urging. He charged through the door like an amok god of destruction, reveling in the carnage of war. He saw three, four, five more bandits on the other side of the portal. He ignored them as his eyes lit on the wizard standing at the back of the chamber, gesturing frantically. He lunged for him with a bellow that shook the walls. The terrified man had time for one ill-aimed blast of power before his head sailed across the room. Thunder rocked the chamber, bringing down a hail of rocks and debris. Storm ignored the stinging cuts, whirling like a wolf to rip the last bandit to shreds with his spinning blades as Lorelei finished off the rest with her bow.
A low growl rumbled in his throat as he searched for more enemies to kill. Finding none he let himself lean back against the cavern walls. Sweat stung his eyes.
He shook his head then blinked again.
Finally, the burning was gone and his eyes cleared.
He looked around at the carnage they’d created. A savage smile creased his lips. “So much for scouting. It looks like we won.”
Her shoulders slumped. She managed a weak smile. “Yes, I think we did.” Now the sudden battle was over she looked as tired as he felt.
A weak cough interrupted them.
One of the bandits smiled faintly at them through blood soaked lips. He gestured weakly for them to come near. “Thank you for . . . freeing me from . . . the Leader,” he wheezed. His chest labored against the arrows embedded in it.
“Leader?” Lorelei arched one eyebrow as they knelt beside the dying man.
He tried to nod. “Controls your . . . body, actions. Found magic scroll from . . . First Age. Made bloodstone that . . .” he coughed again, blood gushing from his lips. His back arched in pain. “Controls you . . . makes you do things.” His hand gripped Storm’s arm with sudden strength. “I used to be a good man before he captured me, turned me to evil. He’s too good with a sword . . . too evil . . . he wants . . .”
His voice trailed off to an unintelligible whisper.
Storm lifted him up, cradling him in his arms. “Wants what?”
The man’s eyes opened one last time. “The girl who . . . lives in two places. With her, his power . . . will . . . increase to, to . . .” he slumped in Storm’s arms, his eyes rolling sightlessly back in his head.
Storm eased him down to the floor.
They looked at looked at each other across the man’s corpse, the same thought echoing in both their minds.
The girl who lives in two places.
Once they had checked that all the raiders were dead they went after the one who escaped. They found him very quickly. He was standing in the middle of the tunnel, caught by the spell-trap they’d spent so much time bypassing. He was encased in a shell of pure amber, a horrified expression frozen on his face. They left his petrified form where they found it. Although there now existed the possibility that all of them had been unwilling slaves, the only emotion they could summon was relief it was him instead of them caught in the evil trap.
They returned to the main cavern and lit all the hanging lamps so they could explore it more thoroughly.
By common assent, they looked over the horses first. They were a fine collection of animals, sleek, strong, and well fed. Storm tapped one of them on the back of a front knee until he reluctantly raised his hoof. The iron shoes were hammered on neatly, displaying the same patterns he’d noticed in the dust at the farm. It still looked familiar to him. When he ran his hand along the animal’s flank he discovered the reason. On the left hindquarter was the brand of the Royal Army of Ingold. He and Lorelei quickly moved among the horses examining them for brands; all but six carried the same mark.
“Wait until the King hears about this,” she grinned. “What happens to horse thieves around here?”
Storm shrugged. He wasn’t so sure they were stolen. The raiders had reacted to their attack with a speed and efficiency more common to seasoned veterans than outlaws. “You get pulled apart by horses,” he answered absently. “Roderick believes in making the punishment fit the crime.” His eyes lit on the huge, potbellied stove dominating the kitchen area. “Come on,” he waved at her. “I want another look at that stove.”
She followed him with a shrug. “Who knows why they wanted that thing, or how they got it up here.”
He ignored her, intent on studying the stove closely. He circled the mammoth piece of ironmongery, examining it for guild marks or a manufacturer’s stamp. He found it on the back near the bottom; a silver plate, blackened with soot, was bolted to the stove. Grabbing a filthy rag he scrubbed it vigorously until the name came clear. ’Caryrstul & Sons’ it read. He’d never heard of it. He wiped away more soot. Under the name, he found the royal stamp of the T’thalian Empire.
Lorelei squatted down beside him. “What is it?”
“It’s the cartouche of the T’thalian Empire. I served alongside their army for a while. They stamp it on everything. They’re trying to put their mark on the world, I guess,” he shrugged.
Lorelei wrinkled her nose. “Horses from Ingold and stoves from T’thalia. Not very picky were they?”
“No.” He stood up. “Let’s see what the Leader had in his room.”
They strode across the cavern to the final chamber where the wizard had lost his head to Storm’s blade. At the far end of the room was a door leading to yet another room carved out of the rock. It was roughly twenty by twenty feet, somewhat circular in shape. Against the far wall was a large bed and matching nightstand, both constructed from a dark, expensive looking, fine-grained wood, polished to a bright finish. A cheap, military-style wall locker stood at the foot of the bed. To the right was a massive desk constructed in the same manner as the bed, a matching chair before it. Papers and charts lay scattered on the desk while a large map was attached to the wall above it. Along the opposite wall were a table and chairs, apparently where the wizard took his meals, built along the same lines as the rest of the furniture.
Lorelei ran a finger along the beautifully scalloped edge of the desk. “He had good taste,” she said admiringly. “This is from the Marilas Federation; Overon maybe, or Silvenwood.”
“Looks like it,” Storm agreed. He’d seen similar furnishings transported back and forth on many of the caravans he’d been with. The Marilas Federation crouched alongside the River of Sorrows which flowed from the eastern flank of the Biqah Prairie, all the way to the coast where it emptied into the Overdark Ocean. The tall, dark wood trees that lined the mighty river for two hundred Leagues on either side were the envy of the world, fetching high prices in the courts of Carrzulm, Fleyniria, T’thalia, Ingold, the desert kingdom of Thorizdum, and the city-states that circled the Tagil Sea. He’d even seen one shipment destined for far distant La-Dan.
What looked like a daily journal was spread open in the center of the desk. They pored over it, flipping through the pages at random. Most of it dealt with nothing more exciting than the day to day happenings within the little band of raiders. “Radik made a fine, beef stew tonight. The men were well pleased,” one entry read. Toward the end, they found a page that riveted their attention.
Storm and Lorelei stared at each other in surprise. “The wizard wasn’t the leader after all!” she exclaimed.
“Then who is?” he wondered. “And what’s this part here? ’None of them are as accomplished with the sword as he is’? The guy’s a warrior and a wizard?”
Lorelei shook her head in confusion. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. How could one person master both crafts? It doesn’t make any sense. None of it does. Why would the leader want to blockade the road? Bandits set up ambushes not blockades. Besides, what kind of title is that . . . The Leader?”
“No, they don’t,” he asserted, ignoring her last question for the moment. He had heard of that kind of title before, but it was on Earth. This was Gaia. His eyes narrowed in concentration. “But soldiers do set up blockades.” He gestured at the map on the wall. Ingold was laid out in minute detail, covered with a grid of fine lines. Prominent points were highlighted in red ink; Ingoldian troop quarters, supply dumps, patrol routes, armories and training grounds. Interestingly there was nothing indicating the hideout they were standing in. “That’s a military map,” he grunted sourly. “All of Ingold’s defenses are there; approach routes, strong points, elevated positions – everything.”
She saw at once what he meant. “That’s the kind of map you’d use to plan an invasion.” She studied the handwriting on the map then compared it to the journal. “Our little dead wizard out there didn’t draw this thing. The Leader?”
“Probably. This guy has to be a soldier, a pretty good one from the looks of it. But how could a soldier use a magical scroll from the First Age? Only wizards can do that.”
Lorelei saw the worry she felt mirrored in his eyes. “This is bad.”
He started pawing through the rest of the journal. “You said a mouthful,” he muttered. The very next page held an entry even more ominous than the last.
They stared at each other silently.
Storm heaved a deep sigh, “And the hits just keep on coming.”
“Nothing. Just an old saying from the sixties or seventies,” he replied absently, tugging at his beard with a worried expression. The information in the journal meant their expedition to Ingold had taken a sudden turn for the worse.
She favored him with a puzzled frown then straightened up. “I say we grab what we can and get out of here.”
“Take everything,” he corrected her. “I’ll saddle the horses.”
Suiting actions to words he turned on his heel without waiting for her response and stalked out to the main cavern, worry eating at his guts like a tapeworm. It wasn’t enough that they were likely to attract demonic attention, now there were earthly enemies after them as well. “Units.” That meant more than this one band. They would be waiting in ambush for them along the road.
The Leader also knew about him.
His background as a self-imposed outcast from the Bear Clan wasn’t widely known. Most men didn’t care where you came from and unless you told them, never asked. As long as you led them well and paid on time they were happy. There were only a few caravan masters who’d bothered to delve deeply enough to uncover his history. Although he’d never hidden his Gaian past there couldn’t be more than a handful of men who knew he was from the Bear Clan. But none of them fit the picture of a “Leader” using magic to run a military campaign. So who was it?
This was looking worse and worse.
He snarled bitterly under his breath as he threw saddles and panniers on the horses, cinching the straps down with hard, savage jerks. Lorelei tossed an endless stream of books, maps and papers into the panniers then he joined her in toting the bags of gold out of the treasure room. Two of the largest paintings were too big to fit so they tied them across the backs of one of the horses.
They led their captured remuda up the ramp then down the long tunnel back to the forest below. The horses followed willingly through the tight confines of the tunnel, but once outside they tied their halter ropes to the horse in front of them in a long string to keep them from scattering. They reclaimed their horses, still patiently waiting where they’d left them and headed down the mountain toward the farm.
“This is very bad indeed,” Durin rumbled, agreeing with Lorelei’s earlier assessment of the situation. Upon arriving back at the farm they’d awoken Ralt and Durin, then spent the rest of the night poring over their captured documents. “We are in grave danger, perhaps the whole kingdom is. A mage who is also a warrior would be a menace not easily stopped if he could be stopped at all.” They were sitting in the middle of the barn with the books and maps Storm and Lorelei brought back. The main map was spread out on the floor with the many books stacked beside it.
Ralt shook his head grimly. “Not possible,” he argued, reaching for another tome. “Magic requires years of study, research, and practice, most of it done indoors, reading by candlelight until all hours of the night. Why do you think powerful wizards are always old graybeards who can barely totter around the room? There’s no time for running around outside swinging a sword or staying in shape. Your studies consume all your time and attention. Except for a Ghibbore,” he added grudgingly with a nod at Storm.
“You’re not old and weak,” Lorelei pointed out.
“I said powerful wizards,” he countered.
“Those lightning bolts you used against the Manticores were powerful enough,” Durin snorted. “Almost ‘near deafened me, they did!”
“So I started young,” Ralt shrugged.
“Well, what if the Leader started young too,” Lorelei quizzed him. “Couldn’t he have mastered what magic he needed before his body became too weak to take up swordplay?”
“Maybe,” he conceded grudgingly after a long pause. “But I don’t believe it.”
Storm had been listening without comment for a time. Ralt’s comment pulled him back into the conversation. “Some things are true whether you believe them or not.”
“Touché,” he grinned ruefully, hearing the well-known phrase used against him. “But I still don’t believe it,” he insisted stubbornly.
“For what it’s worth, neither do I. But – what about this business with the scroll? How could someone use a magical scroll unless they have been trained in magic?”
Ralt’s face fell into a brown study. He rubbed a hand wearily across his eyes. “I don’t know. There are some scrolls that are made to be used by non-wizards, usually to rescue the person reading the command word or deliver a big, unpleasant surprise to your enemies. What you described sounds like an actual spell though, the creation of a magical object with specific powers. That does require magical training. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“And what about Krista?” Durin wanted to know. “How can he use her to increase his powers? Or his amulet’s powers, or whatever?”
Ralt drummed his fingers on the book in his lap. “That’s a good question. Some enchantments can become more powerful if the right ritual is properly conducted. The formula is fairly rigid though, and nothing I’ve ever heard of uses a person’s soul or their soulless body.” He frowned in thought. “The wizards of the First Age possessed knowledge and powers as yet unmatched in our age. So much was lost in the Chaos Wars that we’ve had to rebuild our sorcerous knowledge virtually from scratch. If the scroll this Leader used really was from that distant time, there’s no telling what he might be able to do. Even if he misread the scroll the danger to her is still very real as long as he believes he can use her.”
Storm craned his head out the barn door. The sun was rising and the men were almost finished packing their treasure into the wagon. The remuda of captured horses was standing quietly, already tied together for the trip. It wouldn’t be long before Thomas came in to report they were ready to leave. “You’re right about that. Lorelei and I caught the bandits off guard, asleep in the middle of the night. We won’t be so lucky once we’re back on the road. One good ambush could wipe us all out.”
“Or wound us so bad the next one succeeds,” Durin added darkly.
“Exactly. Which is why I think we should stop in Breckinridge. It’s only a seven or eight leagues up the road. If they can get a message to Roderick, or maybe a local garrison commander, that might even the odds a bit.”
“I’m all for that,” Lorelei agreed enthusiastically. She paused. “Are there any local garrisons?”
Storm grimaced. “There used to be. I don’t know now. Its been nearly four years since the last time I was through here. We’ll just have to hope its still there.”
Durin looked up. “Hope in one hand and--”
“Yeah, yeah, we know,” Ralt cut him off.
Storm fought to suppress a grin at Durin’s expression. “So!” he exclaimed, standing up. “Everyone stay on your toes. Have you got any more of your lightning bolts handy?” he asked Ralt as everyone rose to join him.
He nodded. “And a few other things I found in here.” He hefted the dead wizard’s book of spells. “Some real nasty ones,” he smiled like a wolf.
Storm felt a primitive shudder run down his back. I guess I’m not quite as used to wizards as I thought, he told himself. “Fine.” He managed a weak smile. “Let Ogden drive the wagon so you can be ready with – uh, whatever. I’ll take the left flank, Lorelei on the right and you take the rear, Durin. If they get through the men, we’ll be the last line of defense.” He stared hard all around at them, “Don’t let them get past you.”
Thomas stuck his head in the door. “Ready whenever you are, Captain.” Tension at the news of a possible ambush had erased his fake, hick accent as if it had never existed. His face was drawn tight with concern.
They gathered the scattered books and maps then took their positions around the wagon. “You’ve got point, Thomas,” Storm told him. “In seven or eight leagues, you’ll come to a fork in the road. Take the right fork. We’re going to take a little detour.”
“Got it,” he grunted tersely.
The mountains they rode through were still as beautiful and peaceful looking as ever, but now they saw them for the illusion they were. The thick trees and underbrush pressing close to the road could easily hide an entire army waiting to pounce on them without warning. They eyed the dark thickets warily, riding as far away from them as possible. A late, false summer heat dried their throats as they plodded up the dusty road. They rode spread out, far enough apart to foil an enemies’ attempt to ambush them all at once, but not so far apart they couldn’t come to each others aid in case of an attack. Whether Storm had balanced their spread correctly or not was something they’d learn only when it was too late to change it. If he hadn’t, they’d pay for the mistake with their lives.
Soon, Thomas signaled back to them he’d reached the fork in the road. Storm waved acknowledgment and they turned off from the main path. Despite no sleep the night before he was tense and alert. Lorelei, as accustomed to harsh living as him, showed the same attention.
Within the hour they began encountering houses and outlying farms. Curious farmers, silent and somber, stood in their fields watching them pass. Once, a pretty young girl, her long dress tucked up out harm’s way from the scythe she carried, waved gaily to them. Lorelei waved back but other than that no one approached them or offered any greetings.
It was strange, Storm thought to himself. He remembered the people being friendlier than this. He ordered his men to remain on guard as they approached Breckinridge. The houses began appearing closer together, slowly at first, then with increasing frequency until they were riding through the city itself, cobblestone streets echoing beneath their horse’s hooves. Ingold had been peaceful, ‘proof against invasion’ was perhaps a better way of putting it, for so long they’d dispensed with the usual guarded walls that protected most cities on Gaia. Perhaps they’d begun to pay the price for that lately, he thought. It would account for the cautious faces peering at them from doorways and windows without speaking.
They came to the town square, dominated by the main keep, a large, four-story building. Two guards, standing on either side of the entrance to it, glanced nervously at each other as they drew to halt before them. Storm swung down from Specter’s back to approach them in what he hoped was a non-threatening manner. As he was climbing the steps one of the guards suddenly squinted down at him then relaxed with a wide grin.
“It’s OK, Ben. Don’t you recognize Storm? He used to be head of security for Wagon Master Rogar.” He tucked his spear in the crook of his arm and came forward to shake Storm’s hand. “Remember me? Kreckin? We tore up that bar in Robling last time you were here, the Broken Staff.”
Storm laughed as it came back to him. That had been a good fight even if it was a bit confusing. Kreckin had cheerfully bashed friend and foe alike. “Yeah, I remember,” he growled happily. “You practically knocked me out with that chair or whatever it was. We were supposed to be on the same side!”
Kreckin shrugged without embarrassment. “Yeah, well, when I get in a fight I kind of go nuts; just clobber anyone in range.”
“Not anymore I hope. You’ve got problems out there.” Storm jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the mountains.
Kreckin’s glad smile died as deep lines etched themselves on his face. “Yeah.” He eyed the remuda of horses Arthur was leading. “It looks like you lost a lot of men.”
“Killed a lot of bandits is more like it.”
The second guard, older and starting to show gray in his beard, joined them. “How many?”
“Too many. Or not enough, depending on how you look at it. We found some very bad news in their hideout. That’s why we’re here,” Storm said grimly. “The Baron needs to see it before we head on for Robling. He’s not going to like it,” he added warningly. Dozens, if not hundreds of tiny holdings and towns dotted Ingold, each commanded by petty nobility, or men with pretensions of nobility. The Baron of Breckinridge, Frayen Smithson, was reputed to be one of the better ones. He’d met him once in passing.
Kreckin cursed under his breath. “Hang on, I’ll fetch him.” He disappeared inside.
He was back in a trice, opening the door for a burly, middle-aged man wearing chain mail with the ease of long practice. Frayen had been one of the King’s guards, knighted by Roderick himself before retiring to become Baron of the Breckinridge. Snapping black eyes fixed themselves on Storm. “Hail and well met,” he grunted. “What’s all this about killing bandits?”
“Hail and well met,” Storm returned. “We were on our way to Robling when we discovered that the farm in Oak Flats meadow had been attacked. Everyone is dead.”
“The Mallory place,” one the men muttered quietly. Others nodded grim confirmation.
“We tracked the bandits to their hideout and managed to surprise them,” he continued. “After they were dead we made a discovery which leads us to believe they were part of a larger, organized band that poses a genuine threat to Ingold as a whole.”
Frayen scowled fiercely. “Show me.”
Storm motioned for Ralt to bring out the maps and the journal with its disquieting entries. Frayen’s face gradually hardened as he examined them and listened to Lorelei’s recitation of the dying bandit’s last words. His blunt fingers traced lines on the map, lips moving silently. Finally, he straightened and clasped his hands behind his back, staring off into the distance as they finished their tale, shaking his head briefly as they described Krista’s condition as “the girl who lives in two places.”
When they were done he shoved his hand out to Storm. “Thank you. Your companions tell a strange story but the warning in it is timely indeed. We are in your debt. Whatever we have to offer is yours. You’ve earned it a thousand times over today.” He pivoted to Kreckin. “Fetch the scribes. These maps and the pages in this journal must be sent to the King at once.” He turned back to them. “If you will excuse me, I have much work to do.” With a quick bow, he swept up the maps and journal then strode back inside, snapping orders to Kreckin as he went.
Storm frowned. He’d hoped the Baron would turn out some patrols, but how did Frayen propose to get the evidence to Roderick any faster than they could? He hesitated then shrugged it off. It was out of his hands now; they had done what they could. Turning, he asked Ben where they could find a tavern to cut the trail dust. With something like awe on his face he led them across the square then down one of the streets to a large inn, tables set up in front of it in a well-kept garden surrounded by a low, decorative wrought-iron fence. Red, gold-trimmed banners hanging at regular intervals along the front of the building declared it to be the Black Staff Inn. A detailed drawing of a staff of black twisted wood cut through the middle of the stylized letters for the benefit of the illiterate.
The men dismounted wearily, glad for a chance to relax in relative security before hitting the road again. Durin was on hand to help Sodan as the old man struggled out of the wagon. He got him to a table near a chuckling fountain. The men appropriated several nearby tables. Ben hovered nearby, whispering in the waitress’ ear, then later in the owner’s ear when he came out. The pot-bellied owner immediately proclaimed that everything was on the house, much to the delight of the men who began calling out lusty orders for beer and sausages.
Surrounded by the elements of civilization, Sodan perked up. Storm watched with amusement as he made a show of ordering his meal, then choosing a wine to go with it. Thomas, struggling to hide a grin, caught his eye and went through a mock parody of Sodan’s mincing movements. Storm smiled in return, leaning back in his chair. A little civilization was a good thing now and then.
They’d been at the Inn about an hour when Ralt suddenly nudged Storm in the side and pointed skyward. He saw a Pegasus, a winged horse, climbing into the sky away from the roof of the keep bearing a man on its back. The man turned his steed to the west where they quickly disappeared in the distance.
“So that’s how they were going to get the evidence to the King,” Storm mused. “I wondered how they thought they could do any better than we could. I didn’t know they’d managed to catch a Pegasus.”
“Me either," Ralt admitted. "They’re not the easiest creatures in the world to catch – or train. I wonder how they did it?”
“What difference does it make?” Durin grumbled. He leaned across the table. “In view of the Baron’s offer, I think we should take this opportunity to replenish our supplies. This town has a number of well-stocked stores as I recall.”
“When were you ever in Breckinridge?” Ralt asked in surprise.
“Several times,” the dwarf snapped. “None of your sass now! How about it?” he asked Storm.
“Sure, go ahead.” He settled back in his chair then propped his feet up on the scarred tabletop. “I’ll be right here if you need me.” Ralt and Lorelei decided to go with the dwarf. Both hinted there were several items they wanted to pick up if they were available. He waved them away, shouting for another mug of ale. One of the nice things about having command, he reflected, was that other people had to do all the fetching and running around while he relaxed in the sun.
When they returned an hour later they found him gently snoozing in his chair. Durin stood over him shaking his head in mock despair. “Will ye look at dat? Sleeping like a newborn babe! Helpless as a bunny rabbit. As defenseless as a--”
The dwarf paled, freezing in mid-sentence. He looked down slowly to see a razor-edged dagger digging into his side just under his armor. He followed the dagger to the hand holding it, then up the arm to Storm’s face.
Storm lazily opened one eye to squint up at Durin. “You were saying?” he drawled pleasantly. “Defenseless as a what?”
The men doubled up with laughter.
Durin turned red. He slapped the dagger away with a disgusted grimace. “Nothing!” he snapped, “Nothing at all.” The men laughed even harder at the dwarf’s embarrassment until he finally relented and grinned back at them. “Oh, alright. The joke is on me,” he muttered. “Let’s get our stuff loaded and get going. We’ve spent too much time here as ’tis.”
Storm slid the dagger back into its sheath as he stood up. “Go easy on them,” he cautioned softly. “They needed this break to relieve the tension on the road. Waiting for an ambush can try any man’s mettle. I don’t begrudge them a few hours, why should you?”
“Aye,” Durin agreed reluctantly.
Storm clapped him on the shoulder. “Good man.” He turned to the men who were still chuckling over Durin’s mishap in judgment. “Let’s get loaded,” he bellowed. “We can still make another eight or nine leagues before sundown. That’s eight or nine leagues closer to Robling and the pleasures of Blue Street!”
The men let out a lusty cheer. Blue Street, named for the blue window trim its inhabitants favored, was famous throughout the land for its gambling dens, shows, taverns and ladies of the evening. It was said that on Blue Street anything could be had for the right price. It had long been a favorite stop among caravan guards. Storm saw no reason these men shouldn’t have the same privilege.
The wagon was noticeably lower on its springs when they were finished loading Durin’s new supplies. The dwarf assured him he’d procured enough food to last them to Robling without having to live off the land as they had been doing. Storm welcomed the news with a glad smile. Once back on the road with who knew how many enemies possibly closing in on them, speed would be the only thing that could save them. Hunting, especially in a thick forest, took several hours each day, hours they could no longer afford. If their enemies thought they were stopping to hunt, they might underestimate their speed and let their quarry slip through their fingers undetected.
They quickly moved out, re-tracing their path through town. Frayen came out on the steps of the keep to wave at them as they passed. The men waved back, shouting their thanks for the cities’ hospitality. The news had apparently spread throughout town for the road was lined with well-wishers. One woman even dashed out to give them a box of chocolates.
Storm laughed at his men’s befuddled expressions. “Hail the conquering heroes,” he chortled at Thomas.
The bowman put on his best, injured look. “Come on, Cap’em,” he objected. “I ain’t never been a hero before.” He popped a chocolate in his mouth. “I could get used to it though.”
Lorelei shot him a dark look. “Heroes generally have to go through a lot of pain before they get a parade – if they live long enough to get it.”
Thomas ignored her and blithely tossed another chocolate in his mouth.
Once out of town and back on the main road they quickly settled down to their familiar routine. They still had a weeks’ ride ahead of them on the rough mountain roads before they reached Robling. There was still plenty of time to die in an ambush.
They made camp that night just after sunset on a pleasant little meadow at the foot of a small waterfall. A large circle of fire-blackened rocks showed where previous travelers had built their campfire. They hobbled the horses then turned them loose to graze on the tall grass. Dinner was a lively affair, spruced up by the addition of a huge turkey Durin had procured during his shopping expedition. In deference to Lorelei the men toned down their jokes but she quickly put them at ease with a few ribald jokes of her own.
As they prepared to turn in there was a chill in the air that had more than one man predicting snow by morning. Storm felt a faint twinge of satisfaction when Lorelei put her sleeping blankets next to his. Even if her intentions were entirely innocent it would be nice to have a warm body to snuggle up to in the cold. He posted the watch, three men at a time now, then ordered everyone to sleep.
Lorelei slithered into her blankets then immediately threw an arm across his chest as she squirmed close to him. She pillowed her head on his shoulder, drawing his arm around her. Before he could react she was fast asleep. He debated trying to steal a kiss from her while she slept but finally decided he really didn’t know what she wanted from him. Was she interested in him over and above his promise to her father? Or was it just warmth against the night? Cursing himself for an idiot he closed his eyes with a sigh of regret, but sleep was a long time coming.
Tread lightly where demons are concerned.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Shortly after midnight, Storm was jerked awake by a sudden feeling of danger unlike anything he’d ever experienced. It brought him to his feet in a single bound, sword in either hand. Too late he remembered Lorelei sleeping on his chest. He turned and found her standing beside him, fumbling an arrow into her ever-present bow, looking at him with questioning eyes.
Light snowflakes were drifting down; there was already an inch of it on the ground. Their breath frosted in the cold air, drifting away from them like pipe smoke. On the far side of the wagon they could hear the guards complaining in low mutters about the cold as they huddled close to the fire. The gently falling snow obscured all the normal sounds of the forest. Except for the crackle of the fire and muttering of the guards, it was dead silent.
Storm paused, straining every sense to locate the danger he knew was coming closer.
The mutters on the other side of the wagon, abruptly changed to exclamations of horror. Then a shrill scream split the night. Storm bounded around the wagon. He collided with Durin who was springing up from his blankets. They slipped in the snow then crashed to the ground in a tangled heap. They cursed as they pushed away from each other. Storm rose to his knees then froze as he saw the thing that towered over the campfire.
It was tall, taller than the wagon, which reached ten feet from the ground to the arched wooden top that covered it. The chest was wide, nearly as wide as Storm was tall, covered with snow-white hair that glistened with pus from the open sores scattered across it. Gigantic, ape-like arms hung nearly to the ground from the massive shoulders. A powerful tail lashed the air behind it, the tip covered with deadly spikes. It had the hindquarters, legs, and feet of a giant goat; the cloven hooves pounding the ground were larger than dinner plates. Vast wings protruded from the misshapen shoulders, fanning the fire, sending clouds of burning embers flying around the tiny camp.
The face . . .
Thousands of razor sharp teeth filled the mouth in what was once a human face, now terrifyingly ruined beyond description, with an impossibly long black forked tongue lolling over the torn and bleeding lips. Wicked horns jutted up from the forehead amid a forest of squirming electric blue eels that served as hair. Bat ears stuck out on either side of the head. Around the whole beast was a glowing, black aura of decay and corruption.
Storm took all of this in, in an instant. But it was the eyes that held him frozen in place.
They were two bright yellow, glaring suns beating down on him from the desecrated face. They were wild with blood lust, murder, and an insensate craving for carnage. Insanity lurked in them, a raging desire to destroy the world merely because it existed. There was screaming madness in those eyes that was evil beyond description. There a hellish, burning hatred of everything that lived; hatred for everything that breathed or walked or crawled or crept upon the earth. Behind all of it, part of all it, was such complete and total evil as to turn a brave man into a shaking coward, begging for mercy. With such eyes might the Lord of the Dead welcome some hideously damned soul to his realm of eternal darkness.
Storm was paralyzed with fear by those eyes.
I know you, they said. I know your every weakness and fear. I know the horrors that creep through your nightmares – and they are me! I will devour your soul! I know you, weakling Ghibbore. I know you!
He shook his head, breaking contact with the sun bright orbs glaring down at him. He gasped at the shock.
It’s talking to me in my head! Trying to frighten me!
The realization brought on a tidal wave of anger that burned away the unholy fear the thing had planted in his heart. He surged to his feet, yanking Durin up with him. The demon-gaze had held him captive for only an instant, even though it felt like years. It still stood there holding a guard in each talon studded paw, blood running in rivers down its arms. The third guard was on the ground, his head squashed like an over-ripe tomato beneath one hoof.
A blood-curdling war cry sounded from around the camp as the men charged the demon from all sides. It answered with a bellow of its own. It hurled the limp bodies at them, knocking them back with brutal force. Bones snapped like dried timbers.
Storm caught a glimpse of Ralt leaping from the wagon as he and Durin charged the demon side by side. He swung his sword in a mighty, unstoppable blow, cleaving the monster’s flesh to the bone. It howled in fury, shaking the trees with the power of that bellow as Durin’s enchanted axe bit into it from the other side. It launched a tremendous, backhanded blow at them. He saw Durin sailing through the air, then he was slammed backward into the wagon with an ear-splitting crash.
He dropped to the ground gasping for breath. He lurched drunkenly to his feet, fighting the waves of darkness that threatened to consume him.
Where was Durin?
The demon was still bellowing with pain, a dozen arrows buried in its chest. Lorelei stood beside the wagon, white-faced with fear, launching shaft after shaft at the towering monstrosity.
Then Thomas charged in from nowhere, his sword swinging down to cut one of the demon’s legs from under him. Instead, his sword rang like a bell as it bounced off. Thomas yelped at the stinging pain as the sword vibrated painfully in his hands. Before he could retreat the demon’s tail lashed out, hurling him across the camp. He crashed to the ground in a boneless heap.
Storm gritted his teeth for another charge. A crash of thunder erupted with a blinding flash of light. He staggered backward, blinking watering eyes, trying to see.
The demon was still on its feet, howling with unearthly fury at the scorching pain in its chest where Ralt’s lightning bolt had struck. It roared something in an obscene language and suddenly there were two demons.
Storm’s jaw dropped.
Two of them!?
What had the demon done?!
He adjusted his eyes to see the magic it was using. Abruptly he understood. It was an illusion! He saw Durin charging out of the forest where the thing had flung him. He roared a battle chant as his axe cut into the illusory flesh of the false demon.
“Durin! No!” he bellowed as he launched himself into another attack. “It’s a fake! This one!” His sword sliced into the creature’s side. Blue-and-purple blood spurted in his eyes, blinding him. He felt, rather than saw, a massive blow coming and he dove frantically to the ground, sliding past the demon in the snow.
He wiped the stinging ichor from his eyes in time to see Lorelei scream as the demon flung magic at her. Searing white bolts streaked across the camp, slamming her back against the wagon. She rolled across the wagon seat then dropped to the ground on the far side. He couldn’t tell if she was dead or alive.
He struggled to his feet.
Durin was still fighting the fake demon. From the corner of his eye, he saw two guards charging forward to do battle. “NO!” he yelled, remembering Thomas’ futile attack. “You can’t hurt it without magic!”
His warning went unheeded. They either didn’t hear him over the demon’s bellowing or they didn’t believe him. The demon gestured lazily and one of them suddenly shot straight up in the air as if shot from a bow. The beast grabbed the other one. The doomed guard had time for one shrill scream before he was torn in half, bloody entrails spilling on the ground. The demon spreads its wings, creating a hurricane of blinding snow and flying embers as it rose into the air heading for the wagon.
Overhear there was a despairing scream as the guard came hurtling back down like a missile shot from a catapult. He cannoned into the wagon with a tremendous crash. Wood snapped like kindling as the whole wagon swayed crazily on its wheels from the impact, nearly tipping over.
The demon landed beside it with a bellow of triumph. Darkness surrounded the wagon as if a veil had been drawn around it. He saw Ralt incanting, his hands weaving through the air in sorcerous passes.
Storm finally reached Durin and grabbed him by the shoulders, swinging him around. “Ignore it!” he bellowed. “It’s an illusion! A fake! There’s only one demon!”
Durin hesitated, torn by the evidence of his senses and Storm’s obvious sincerity. Ralt saved him from further delay. His spell banished the darkness around the wagon. The illusory demon vanished as well.
The demon, visible again, hurled something at them. They ducked as it landed at their feet. It was Sodan’s head, eyes frozen wide in terror. Durin sobbed in sudden rage then charged the demon, murder in his face, his axe a glittering circle of fire over his head.
Storm found his second sword, buried point down in the snow where he’d dropped it when the demon backhanded him into the wagon. He ripped it out of the ground then hurled it like a knife, spinning through the air to bury itself in the demon’s chest. The monster staggered under the blow, giving Durin the opening he sought. His axe, shining star white with magical power, sheared through the demon’s wrist, lopping off its left hand.
Before it could counter-attack it arched its back in sudden pain, half-spinning to face its new attacker. Storm saw more arrows buried in its back and exulted, knowing Lorelei was still alive and fighting. He bounded across the fire to join Durin’s maddened attack.
They each swung once, twice, three times – cleaving bone and flesh with each stroke. Lightning ravened through the night again, driving it to one knee amid the debris of the wagon.
The remaining guards whooped for joy as they saw victory within their grasp. Surging forward, they closed for the kill.
The demon’s head snapped up, level now with Storm’s. Its eyes glittered with malice as the world dissolved in thundering pain.
Whatever it was, it seemed to hit everyone but Ralt. Guards dropped to the ground like unstrung puppets while Durin collapsed, clutching his head in agony. One of the guards staggered as if from a blow then abruptly shrilled in panic and began hacking frantically at himself with his sword. Storm reeled drunkenly, his vision doubling with pain. Through the haze of agony, he was vaguely aware of Lorelei, doubled up, retching on the ground.
The demon grinned fiendishly. It picked up something from the wreckage of the wagon with a howl of victory. Fighting his double vision Storm saw a delicate box, surrounded by a haze of magic.
He staggered toward the demon, determined not to let it get away with its prize.
It snarled at him, started to its feet then howled with fury as Ralt launched blazing bolts of power into it from the side. It crashed to both knees, barely remaining upright. Storm raised his sword for the final stroke.
From overhead in the darkness came a flapping of wings, and, inexplicably, the whinny of a horse. A calm, unhurried voice said, “Throw it to me.” The voice was strangely familiar.
Storm’s eyes widened. The Leader! He took one step forward, his blade ripping through the air with an audible hiss at the demon’s neck. It was a solid stroke, tearing through bone and muscle in one single, unstoppable blow. Stunned amazement showed on the face as the head sailed through the air, blue-and-purple blood fountaining high into the air from the severed neck.
But the demon had done its master’s bidding. The giant arm, already moving, convulsed in a final spasm, throwing the box containing Krista’s soul high into the darkness overhead. Storm heard a meaty sound as someone caught it in an outstretched hand. “Got it,” the calm voice said. Wings flapped again.
“No!” Ralt screamed. Power streaked upwards from his hands, exploding into a gigantic fireball in the sky. In the brief glare, they saw a dark, distorted shape, already distant, rising into the sky. The light faded and it disappeared.
The demon’s massive body crashed to the ground on top of the ruined wagon, destroying what little remained. The neck continued to gush blood for a moment, then with a silent flash of light, it vanished. An instant later the head vanished the same way.
Storm slumped to his knees.
Stunned silence held them in its grip. Snowflakes drifted lazily down.
Tears streamed down Lorelei’s face as she crawled weakly away from the steaming vomit in the snow. She flopped over on her back, resting her head on a broken wagon wheel. Her chest was heaving. Durin stretched out a trembling hand to pat her shoulder.
Storm watched through dull eyes as Ralt dismissed some kind of protection spell around himself. The magician stumbled through the wreckage to slump down at his side. Together they surveyed the scene.
It was grim.
Except for the four of them, everyone was dead. Only Thomas was still breathing, sprawled in the snow where the demon had tossed him. Everywhere else they looked they saw nothing but death and destruction. Blood stained great swatches of the snow, human and demon alike. Fragments of shattered swords littered the ground between the mangled bodies. The wagon was a total loss, reduced to so much kindling scattered beneath them. The smell of ozone tinged the air from Ralt’s lightning bolts while embers from the fire hissed angrily in the snow. Sometime during the fight, the horses had run off.
Storm pounded softly on the ground. “So close,” he cursed. “So close! If I’d been just a little faster . . . just one second. That’s all it would have taken.”
Lorelei lifted her head with an effort. “Stop it. Just stop it.”
“You don’t understan--”
“Stop it! Stop blaming yourself.” She lifted herself up on one elbow. “We’re lucky to be alive. We did the best we could, Storm, but that was a demon!” She slumped back down in the snow, exhausted from her brief effort. “We’re lucky to be alive,” she repeated.
“Aye. The lass has the right of it, young warrior,” Durin added softly. “There’s no shame to be had here. Against the likes of that,” he gestured at the gruesome puddle of blood, “as fast as it was, as strong as it was, we could easily have wound up like the rest of them.”
“They’re right,” Ralt said wearily. “We all knew going into this it was a long shot; that something like this might happen. We were all volunteers because Sodan knew he couldn’t order anyone to take a chance like this, even for Krista’s sake.”
Durin heaved himself up into a sitting position. “I think . . . I’m not sure, but I think that’s why Sodan insisted on coming along. If he wouldn’t risk his life for Krista, how could he ask anyone else to?”
Storm tried to get up then fell back with a groan when the pounding in his head escalated to a crescendo. He massaged his temples gingerly. “What in blazes did that thing hit us with? My head feels like it’s going to explode.”
Ralt, the only one to escape it, waved a hand vaguely in the air. “Some kind of spell obviously. What, I’ve no idea. Who knows how many kinds of magic there are?” He got up and hurried over to Thomas. His expression changed to one of deep concern. “We’ve got to get him warm. He’s freezing to death.”
Storm struggled to get up again, chewing his lip bloody against the pain in his head. He ground his teeth to keep from blacking out as he pulled a flat slab of wagon siding out of the ruins. “Here, put him on this,” he gasped. “Put it near the fire.”
Ralt drug Thomas over and dumped him on the makeshift bed. “Now you sit down,” he said pushing on Storm’s shoulder. “You’re white as a sheet. If you don’t sit down, you’ll fall down.”
Storm shook his head, wincing at the renewed pounding in his skull. “Get him a blanket first,” he gritted, swaying like a man in a high wind.
“I’ll get the blanket,” Ralt insisted. “Now sit down!”
This time Storm let himself be pushed to the ground. “Maybe for a couple of minutes,” he conceded. He looked over at Lorelei. “How are you doing?”
“Terrible,” was her faint response. “I think I need to puke again.” She rolled away from Durin and they heard her retching in the snow. The dwarf turned green at the sound, his jaw muscles clenching.
“Wine. Get me some wine,” Storm mumbled.
“That’s the last thing you need right now,” Ralt snorted, but he obediently dug out a bottle and handed it to him.
“Keeps me warm,” Storm gasped around a mouthful.
“The dream said that’s my job,” Lorelei managed, wiping her mouth. Storm eyed her from around the upturned bottle, wondering what she was talking about; greenish drool was running down her chin. He shook his head, continuing to gulp the wine as fast as he could. When he lowered the bottle, it was empty. He tossed it aside with a gigantic belch.
Ralt shook his head silently but moved to get him another bottle. “Anyone else?” he asked sarcastically. To his dismay, both Durin and Lorelei nodded emphatically. He plopped a bottle next to each of them. Then with a shrug, he pulled out a bottle for himself. “Why not?” he muttered as he took a long drink. “It’s not as if we’ve got anything better to do.”