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 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 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 the 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 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 the ones who attacked this place 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 King Roderick sent out patrols, or beefed up the ones 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 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.
“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 floating 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 which 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.