Evening found them far down the mountain, tucked into a small depression created when a mighty tree had been uprooted. Hidden down among the exposed roots, Storm felt they were as safe as could reasonably be expected this close to the enemy stronghold. Lighting a fire or even the camp stove was out of the question though. The chance of being seen was too great. He was holding an earnest discussion with Ralt about the various uses of his staff, shivering as they tried to stay warm.
“Fireballs and lightning bolts aren’t the only things it can do,” the wizard was explaining. “It can also release a swarm of tiny bolts, like magical arrows, that will seek out whoever they’re aimed at. They’re very deadly.”
“But does it make any noise when it does that?” Storm pressed him urgently. “Getting to Niran requires stealth more than force of arms.”
“Each bolt makes a high pitched whining sound, like an angry bee,” Ralt admitted, running an eye up and down the staff. “Its also got a cold spell that sounds like a winter avalanche when it goes off.”
Durin shook his head morosely. “No good lad. Is that all the silly thing can do?”
“It can do other things,” Ralt answered defensively. “Well, three, but one of them is just a light spell so you can see what you’re doing. The battering ram spell is silent in and of itself. The only noise it makes is when it hits the target. How much noise depends on what you’re aiming it at.”
Lorelei swallowed the last of her bread. “What’s the other spell?”
“A sleep spell. It’s silent too, but someone with a sufficiently strong force of will could fight it off and sound the alarm.” Ralt shrugged at their disappointed expressions. “Hey, I didn’t build it you know. I just found it.”
Storm turned it over in his head. “A battering ram could come in handy in a hallway or tunnel,” he said slowly. “If you were in a hurry you could just knock everyone out of the way. I don’t know about that sleep spell though. I don’t like the idea someone could fight it off.”
A chorus of laughter from Durin and Ralt met this remark. Startled, he looked at them. “What?”
Durin shook his head with a huge grin on his face. “Just remembering the first time ye met Ralt. I dare say ye’d have not thought that way then.”
Storm chuckled wryly. “Not a chance,” he agreed. “What was that, only two, two-and-a-half months ago now? It seems like a lot longer.”
“You’ve changed a lot since then,” Lorelei said quietly against his shoulder. “With a little backsliding now and then,” she amended with an impish smile.
“Yeah, yeah,” he growled. “So kick me and let me up already. We’ve still got to figure out a way to get Krista’s soul and get the gem away from Niran without getting our heads handed to us.” He was unrolling his and Lorelei’s blankets as he talked. With night approaching it was getting too cold to sit around without a fire. Everyone gratefully dove into their blankets. Lorelei snuggled back against him spoon-fashion with his arms around her.
“We know there’s a back way in,” she said once they were covered up, “but where’s the back?”
The scent of her hair in his nostrils was a pleasant distraction, but he thrust it aside to focus on the task at hand. “Good question. Is there any way your magic can find it for us, Ralt?” he asked over the top of her head.
Ralt wiggled an arm out of his blankets. He fished around in his backpack for a moment before pulling out one of his captured spellbooks. He muttered something indistinct. Storm turned on his magic sight to watch. Tiny, blue fairy lights sprang into existence around him, casting a faint glow. He opened the book and squinted at it in the dim light. He flipped the pages back and forth for a minute before he found what he was looking for. “There’s a spell in here that creates a sort of a third eye. It’s mostly invisible and has a range of nearly a hundred leagues. I would be able to see whatever it sees.” He leaned closer to the book until his nose was nearly touching it to read the full text. “It says here that with a slight expenditure of extra power the spell can be cast to work for someone else instead.” He closed the book with a thud. The fairy lights winked out. “Is that what you had in mind?”
Storm could hear him rustling things as he returned the book to his pack. “I was hoping for something more along the lines of a spell that could just pinpoint the location for us, but that’ll do nicely. It’d be like having our own spy out there, but without the chance of getting caught.” He smiled in the dark. “I like it.”
He started to go on but Durin him interrupted with an urgent hiss. “By the gods! Look!” His short, blocky form was silhouetted against the snow as he pointed past the tangle of roots that covered them.
They scrambled to their feet to peer over them.
A half moon in the sky overhead, sometimes covered by lowering clouds, cast an uncertain light on the mountainsides below them. It created an eerie contrast of pale white and pitch black. Rocky crags cast sharp-edged shadows across the snow-covered meadows and trees. Amid the frosty silence, hundreds of golden flames, made tiny by distance, were bobbing back and forth in a long line.
“Blast!” Storm exploded. “He’s got his whole army out searching for us!”
Ralt felt a coldness that had nothing to do with the chill winter air settle over him. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of torches down there. They were so badly outnumbered there wasn’t any point in trying to count. It was a line of death, pure and simple. “We can’t fight that,” he gasped before he could stop himself.
Lorelei patted him absently on the shoulder, as she stared thoughtfully at the torches below. “That’s why we’re trying to sneak in the back door. But why is he searching at night? His men would be able to see better during the day.”
Storm forced down his initial surge of anger and fear. Lorelei was right. A nighttime search was a lousy strategy. There were so many men down it wasn’t likely anyone would be able to slip through their lines, but why take that chance? Unless it wasn’t a search at all. He nodded grimly to himself. Niran was living up to his reputation as a strategist. “It’s not a search. They’re trying to herd us back up the mountain.”
Lorelei and Durin understood the implications immediately but Ralt didn’t. “Why?”
Durin’s voice was grim. “They’ve got an ambush waiting for us somewhere up there.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the heights behind them.
“But we killed everyone up there,” Ralt protested gamely.
“Doesn’t matter, lad. We know he’s got one flyin’ mount. Who’s ta say he ain’t got more? He coulda been flyin’ his men up there all day, flyin’ behind the peaks so we couldn’t spot ’em.” He shrugged. “It wouldn’t take many. One or two in the right spot ta drop an avalanche on our heads, or pull the ground out from under us. Me own people do that sometimes when we’re fightin’ giants. It ain’t hard.”
“That or he’s had men following us since we fought the demon and now they’re at the top,” Storm interjected. “But it’s a sure bet there’s something nasty waiting for us up there.” He fought to keep the dismay out of his voice at the possibility of an avalanche or dead fall of some kind. He hadn’t thought of that. You couldn’t fight an avalanche. You either got out of its way or died. He cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder at the narrow trail waiting to take them back up the mountain. Durin’s words lent it a menacing aspect.
Ralt swallowed hard against the fear rampaging inside him. “Then we’re trapped.”
Storm chewed on his lip, thinking furiously. “No. There has to be another way.” Unnoticed, one of his hands tightened on a dry root so hard it snapped with a sharp crack. “I wish I knew how spread out they are down there.” He inclined his head at the torch line below. “It’s hard to tell from here. If I knew, I might take a chance trying to slip past them.”
Lorelei nudged him. “What about Ralt’s eyeball spell he was just telling us about?”
Storm felt a surge of hope. His head snapped around to the wizard. “Well?”
Ralt shook his head though. “The first time you cast a new spell it takes hours to prepare yourself for it. It’s a matter of . . .” He hesitated, then changed course. “It’s hard to explain. But believe me, it’d be late tomorrow morning at the earliest before I could cast it.”
“No good,” Storm muttered. “I need to know now while we still have time to decide what to do.”
Durin interrupted them with a startled, “Whot in da world?”
Storm shot him a confused look. “What?”
The dwarf shook his head. “It’s not you or Ralt, it’s Fenris Fang. It’s telling me to say, ‘whelp of Fenris arise’ but I don’t know wh . . .” He stopped in shock.
Smoke was billowing out the great axe strapped to his hip. Faster than a striking snake it coalesced into a solid mass, grew, changed, and took shape. A great black wolf, the size of a horse stood before him. Fierce blue eyes, tinged with yellow, stared down at them. A red tongue lolled over gleaming white fangs.
Before any of them could think to react, the huge wolf inclined its head to Durin. “It’s a pleasure to finally see you this way, Sire.” The smooth, urban voice was exactly the same as the one Storm had heard when Fenris Fang spoke to him during their climb on the cliff.
“Fenris Fang?” Durin gasped.
The wolf nodded. “My other aspect, Sire. I’m still there on your hip, but I’m here as well.”
Storm, Lorelei, and Ralt exchanged silent, dumbstruck glances. For the moment, all thoughts of the army below had been driven from their minds.
Durin fought to regain his composure. “I had no idea ye could do this. Why did ye wait so long ta tell me?” he grumbled sourly.
The wolf sat down, curling its tail around its forefeet. “The craftsmen who made me were told it was best not to tell you too much before it was necessary, Sire. Now it is.” There was no hint of apology in the voice.
“‘Were told’, by me father ye mean,” Durin snapped.
“Why does he keep calling you, Sire?” Lorelei whispered to Durin.
Fenris Fang laughed softly. “The Shokirin were the acknowledged royalty of the Dwarven folk,” he told her directly. “After the Chaos Wars drove them out of Thangadrim they intermarried with the other dwarves. Today every dwarf in the world has Shokirin blood in their veins. My Lord Durin is the only surviving son of Drangor the Mighty, third King of Thangadrim, which makes him the rightful King of all dwarves everywhere.”
She rocked back on her heels, surprised that the great wolf would address her, but even more surprised by his answer. But her reaction was nothing compared to Durin’s. He nearly toppled over with shock. Ralt grabbed him hastily to keep him from falling. “Whoa!” he exclaimed. “Here, sit down.” He guided him back to a thickly protruding root.
Durin stared up at the hulking wolf. His whole body was shaking. “Me people survived?” he choked out. “I thought them dead in the Chaos Wars.”
“Not all survived, Sire. But a good number of them, yes. Enough to spread their line to every corner of the world.” Fenris Fang cocked his head. “Every dwarf with Shokirin blood, which today is all of them, owes their allegiance to you, Sire.”
Ralt glanced at Storm over the top of Durin’s head. Storm returned his look helplessly. He had no idea what to do. The idea that Durin was the rightful King of every dwarf in the world was staggering. What do you say to something like that, he wondered?
Durin was shaking his head. “But,” he paused to wet his lips. “But how ken ye know that?”
“By your father’s command, I was made for you, Sire. I can feel your blood and the blood of all those who share it. I feel them out there – everywhere.” The wolf inclined his head to indicate the world around them.
Ralt raised his hand timidly. “Can I say something?”
Everyone looked at him.
“You said it wasn’t necessary to tell Durin about this until now. So, why is it necessary now? We’re not exactly in a position where he can do anything about it.”
Fenris Fang shook his head. “No. I said it wasn’t necessary to tell My Lord Durin about my secondary aspect until now. I was free to tell him the rest anytime at all.”
Durin bounced to his feet until he was nose to nose with the huge wolf. “Then why didn’t ye?” he roared.
“You didn’t ask, Sire.”
Durin’s jaw dropped.
Despite the stunning nature of the wolf’s revelations, Lorelei clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle at Durin’s pole-axed expression. The idea of the King of the Dwarves standing there with his mouth open like the village idiot was a bit too much for her. Her face worked like rubber as she fought to control herself.
Durin slowly came out of it. His eyes narrowed. He bit off his words one at a time in a hard voice, unaware that he suddenly sounded like the King Fenris Fang claimed he was. “And what else ken ye do that ye haven’t told me about?”
If Fenris Fang was upset by his change in attitude he didn’t show it. “I can protect you from any poison except that of Jormungand. There is one other thing I can do, but I’m forbidden to speak of it until it’s time to do it.”
Durin frowned. If Fenris Fang was forbidden to talk about “the one other thing,” it was certain that it was part of the artifact’s basic make-up. There was no point in trying to get past that particular roadblock.
“Who is Jormungand?” Storm interjected for the first time since Fenris Fang had materialized in this new form.
Durin stroked his beard slowly. “One of the gods who died in the Chaos Wars. According to legend, he was a mighty serpent who circled the world. When he died, some of his poison settled into a pool at the bottom of the ocean.” He shrugged. “I ain’t plannin’ on goin’ swimmin’.” He paused, recalling Ralt’s earlier question and Fenris Fang’s answer. “So why is it necessary for ye to reveal this aspect of yerself?” He waved a hand at the wolf’s body.
“I was made to protect you, Sire, in this aspect or that.” The wolf nodded at the axe still resting in its holder on Durin’s hip. “When I could no longer do that in one aspect, it became necessary to show you my second one.”
“How do ye propose to accomplish that?” Durin asked.
“Lord Storm says he needs information on the army below if all of you are to survive,” Fenris Fang answered. “Since Ralt cannot provide it with his spells, it became necessary to reveal my second aspect so I can serve as your mount to scout them out, Sire.”
Storm jerked his head up. The army!
He wheeled around to peer down the mountain at the line of torches. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but it looked to be a bit closer. He turned back to his friends and the wolf. “Can you do that, Durin? Ride the wolf down there and look around, see if there’s any way we can get through their lines without being seen?”
“I’ve never ridden a wolf but I don’t see why not,” Durin nodded. He stared hard at Fenris Fang. “And the ride there and back will give me some time to ask ye about me people.”
“Whatever I know is yours, Sire,” the wolf agreed blandly.
Durin grunted, then strode to Fenris Fang’s side and threw a leg over the broad, hairy back. He shifted around then dug his fingers deep into the wolf’s fur. “Alright ye mangy mutt, on yer feet.”
Instead of getting up, Fenris Fang simply sprang into the air, disappearing over the tangled roots in a single mighty bound. Durin’s surprised roar carried back to them. “Watch it ye stupid four-legged excuse fer a throw rug! Ye nearly dropped me! I’ll skin ye so fast . . .” His voice faded away down the mountain, still hurling curses at Fenris Fang.
Storm chuckled dryly. King or no, Durin was still the same. Lorelei and Ralt grinned at him, their thoughts echoing his.