With Durin gone for the time being, they all dove back into their bedrolls, pulling the blankets tight around them to ward off the freezing night air. As Lorelei shivered in Storm’s arms she belatedly remembered they hadn’t told their companions about their marriage. “Ralt, Storm and I were married the other night.”
He snorted as he tried to burrow deeper into his own blankets. “From the sound of it you did a lot more than that,” his muffled voice floated out to them. “Anyway, it’s not like a blind man couldn’t see it coming,” he added sarcastically.
She had the grace to blush. “Be careful how you talk to your favorite sister-in-law,” she warned him. “Family feuds can be deadly.”
Storm pulled his head back to peer at her as Ralt made rude noises at her from beneath his blankets. “Sister-in-law?”
“Sure,” she shrugged. “After he dressed you down for your little outburst yesterday you made up and called each other brother. Since we’re married it makes me his sister-in-law and him my brother-in-law.”
Ralt’s muted voice told them, “Congratulations by the way. You two really were made for each other.”
“Thank you,” she returned sweetly.
Storm sighed and admitted defeat. “Brother, wife, in-law’s; I guess I’m collecting quite the family all the sudden.” He settled in to wait.
They didn’t have to wait very long.
It took Durin and Fenris Fang less than an hour to return. Of their conversation during the trip there and back, the dwarf said little, but after giving Storm and Lorelei a grumpy congratulations on their belated marriage announcement, he had a great deal to say about the army that was searching for them.
“Light a fire while I tell ye ’bout it,” he stuttered, shaking with cold. “They cannot see us from down there, ye ken count on that.” The great black wolf had vanished back into the axe the moment they returned from their scouting expedition.
Storm shrugged. “Alright.” He began breaking off dried roots for firewood while Ralt and Lorelei cleared a spot in the snow. The roots snapped loudly in the frozen night air. “We’re listening,” he grunted as he worked.
“There’s five, maybe six thousand of ’em,” Durin managed through blue lips. “Spread out in ten cubit intervals. A titmouse couldn’t sneak between ’em. We only got one chance at getting through their lines.” Ralt snapped his fingers and the dried wood instantly blazed up and Durin huddled in close to it. “Thank ye, lad. I ken barely feel me hands and feet.” He pulled his blankets tighter around himself. “There’s a series of small cliffs and dense scrub brush ’bout a two and a half leagues from their line. There’s a cave of some sort hidden in the middle of it. Ain’t no way they ken keep their formation there. If we ken git there b’fore they do, maybe we ken hide until they’ve gone past.”
“How far are we from it?” Lorelei wanted to know.
“About a league. It’s off the trail too. We gotta strike right through the middle of the forest.” He shrugged apologetically. “They’re heavily armed and armored; a lot of ’em with bows. Ye ken’t see it from here, but there are goblins with ‘em too. They may smell bad, but they ken see in the dark as well as me. They’re scouting about twenty ta thirty yards ahead of the main line.”
“How fast are they moving?” Ralt quizzed him grimly.
“Slow,” the dwarf answered tersely. “They’re being slow and thorough. Too thorough for me liking,” he expanded.
Storm pursed his lips thoughtfully. A league. It was all downhill, but it was at night, through hip-deep snow. Their repaired snowshoes helped but that was all. Running down the mountains during the day was bad enough. Undertaking the same task in the pitch blackness surrounding them took it to a whole new level. He suffered a sudden vision of the nightmare ride during the stampede on the plains. He didn’t like the idea of a repeat, but this time with no assurance that safety awaited them. Durin’s report on the army filled him with dread. Niran appeared to be deadly serious about wanting them killed or captured; probably killed. It was the way he thought.
Niran’s vast throne room was darkened, all the torches extinguished. The only light came from a single candle guttering weakly on the floor beside his throne. Over and above the simple lack of light though there was another more sinister, oppressive darkness in the echoing, nearly empty room. A malignant being towered over his throne radiating hatred and evil.
Xyphren stared balefully at the mortal who’d summoned him yet again with the power of his accursed gem, his blighted face twisted in a snarl. “What do you want this time?” the demon growled in his harsh, grating voice.
“A little more respectfully, if you don’t mind,” Niran responded calmly. “If you anger me with your tone or words, I have the power to torture you beyond belief.” He fingered the gem around his neck meaningfully.
The demon grunted. He’d been subjected to the tortures inflicted by the gem on several occasions already. There was no need for him to believe anything. Experience had taught him all he wanted to know. He forced the semblance of a smile onto his tattered lips. “I hear and obey, Master. What do you require of me?”
Niran nodded at the demon’s abrupt subservience but he knew it was all for show. If he ever lost the gem he knew without a doubt Xyphren would take horrible vengeance on him and enjoy every minute of it. “The four mortals who bested you in the battle over the soul box are somewhere on the mountainsides around my base.” He waved a hand to indicate the surrounding mountains. “My army is advancing up the mountain to drive them into an ambush. I want you to make sure they don’t slip through in the dark.”
Xyphren snarled at the mention of his defeat. “I could have destroyed them if I hadn’t been forced to go after that box!” he roared angrily. “It was your own orders that prevented me from doing that. ‘Get the box first’, you said. If you had let me kill them first, you could have retrieved the box at your leisure!” His voice echoed off the walls.
Niran shrugged. That thought had occurred to him as well. “You’re probably right, but neither of us knew they would be so strong. In any event, we know better now and we won’t make that mistake again.” He sat back in his throne. “Use your magic to locate Storm. Wherever he is, his companions will be there too.”
The demon shifted his massive bulk. “Let me go find them instead,” he suggested. “If you’re driving them into an ambush, you obviously want them dead. I can avenge myself and we’ll both get what we want.”
Niran smiled faintly. “Never fear, my ugly friend. You are the ambush. But I want you to attack them on the trail where they don’t have room to maneuver. In the open, Storm and his companions would be able to surround you and attack from all sides.” He shook his head. “I don’t want to take any chances this time. I want them dead. Kill them any way you like once they’re on the trail, but until then I want you to track them to make sure they don’t slip past my army.”
Xyphren bellowed hot laughter, his eyes glowing with the eagerness to kill. “Much better! I’ll find them at once.”
Squatting down, the demon concentrated on his magic, sending it out to home in on Storm’s exact position. Niran waited patiently for several minutes. Contrary to popular opinion magic wasn’t always instantaneous. It took time to find someone, especially in a vast, mountainous region such as this. Besides, a little time at this point wouldn’t matter. Once Xyphren had them pinpointed for him, he could tell his soldiers where to tighten up their lines. Storm would understand that he was being driven back up the trail, but with the demon’s magic tracking him, it wouldn’t matter what tricks he tried to use to slip past. Eventually, he’d be forced to retreat whether he liked it or not.
Xyphren’s eyes opened as he turned to stare balefully at Niran. “What trickery is this? Are you trying to torment me again?”
“What are you talking about? Find them and be done with it!” Niran ordered, clutching his gem.
The demon howled in pain as the gem lashed him inside and out. He collapsed on the ground at Niran’s feet. “They’re not out there! I can’t find them anywhere!” Xyphren roared as he thrashed around in agony.
Niran paused to consider the demon’s words. Summoned by the gem, Xyphren was incapable of lying to him. The overriding power of the gem prevented it, no matter how much the monster might wish it. But Xyphren and his ilk had had literally thousands of years to perfect the art of lying without lying, shading the truth, holding back, prevaricating on what they knew or said. How truthful was the demon being right now? “Storm should be somewhere on, or below, the trail leading to the fortress on top of the mountain,” he said, weighing his words carefully. “Did you use your magic to seek him out where I just said? Answer me truthfully or the pain will increase.” For emphasis, he tightened his grip on the gem slightly.
Xyphren bellowed with fresh pain. “Yes, Master! Yes!”
Niran heard the truth in the demon’s words and eased his grip on his gem. He settled back in his throne, frowning thoughtfully at his hideous companion. “They must have some kind of anti-detection magic on them then. Its the wizard Storm has with him. He’s doing it.”
“Impossible. No mortal magic could hide them from me,” the demon snorted indignantly.
Niran’s eyes narrowed until they were mere slits as he considered that. No mortal magic? That was an interesting way of putting it. It covered a lot of territory. Any magic, even by the most powerful wizard live would still be considered ‘mortal’; staffs, wands, rings, potions, amulets, enchanted armor or any one of the thousands of other items they put their power into would all fall under that same heading. Even spells with permanent effects were still cast by mortals. Presumably, it would also cover anything created by groups of wizards as well, since by definition any human was mortal. But what about enchantments created by other races? Dwarves and elves had the same life expectancy as humans, but were they considered mortal in the same sense of the word? “Define precisely what you mean by mortal magic,” he ordered.
“Magic used by anyone born who dies of old age. What else would I mean?” Xyphren muttered resentfully.
“Would that include elvish magic?” Niran pressed him, refusing to be drawn into a debate. He needed intelligence about Storm’s possible resources, not philosophy.
“Of course. They grow old and die don’t they?” the demon huffed. “Face facts master,” he sneered, “you’ve lost sight of your quarry. Storm isn’t where you thought he’d be. He’s outsmarted you.” Xyphren seemed amused by the prospect.
Niran ignored the demon’s insolence. He was wrong anyway. Storm was up there alright. There wasn’t anywhere else for him to go. So the question became, how did he manage to hide from Xyphren’s sight? If mortal magic was insufficient to the task, that left immortal magic as the only explanation. Xyphren started to say more but Niran cut him off with a curt wave of his hand. “Silence!”
Brushing past the startled demon he paced back and forth through his darkened throne room. Action helped him concentrate. The brisk military echoes of his footsteps provided a beat to order his thoughts.
Immortal magic, he mused, had only two possible sources; demons, such as his unwilling companion, and the gods. Spells created by either of them, but cast by a mortal would still be considered mortal magic according to the demon’s definition. Therefore whatever magic was keeping Xyphren from finding Storm had either been cast by an immortal or was bound up in an item of some kind that Storm or one of his friends was carrying.
He glanced at the gem hanging around his neck. His divine patrons had created it specifically for him. It certainly contained immortal magic, and there were numerous legends about other such artifacts created over the ages. Was it possible that Storm and his friends had stumbled across one of them? It was a rare occurrence, but not entirely unheard of either.
It was a troubling possibility. Artifacts could be anything, have any powers their divine creators decided to imbue them with. If Storm’s little band possessed an artifact it meant a new, unknown, possibly fatal element had been introduced into their battle. It would also explain a great deal; the ease with which they’d defeated Xyphren, and the way they’d wiped out his men at the fort. He’d been assuming the wizard was the key, but this cast events in a different light. He found he didn’t particularly care for it.
Although the great room was wreathed in shadow, the demon had no trouble following his progress. He wondered at Niran’s abrupt dismissal of his insults. In spite of his consuming hatred for him, he’d been forced to a grudging respect for the keen intellect that drove the human. The man never made a move without having thought the matter through first, and his strategies were inevitably brilliant. He was also merciless. He never forgot an insult or forgave it. If he was ignoring the slight it had to be because of an overarching reason. What was it though?
“Storm or one of his companions has an artifact,” Niran announced abruptly, his voice cutting through the gloom in an angry hiss.
“An artifact would be able to hide them from me,” the demon conceded carefully. “But so could their absence. I can’t find what’s not there.”
Niran strode back to his throne briskly, shaking his head at Xyphren. “They’re up there. There’s only one passable trail down from the fort, and I followed their tracks far enough to verify they took it.” He held up one finger. “Mortal magic can’t hide them from you.” He held up a second finger. “Therefore they must have immortal magic helping them, hence an artifact.”
The demon squatted down, putting his head on a level with Niran’s as he resumed his seat on the throne. The human’s logic was admirable. If they were on the surrounding mountainsides, only artifact level power could prevent him from finding them. There was another possibility though, one Niran hadn’t mentioned. “Artifacts could also be created by a powerful group of wizards or craftsmen during the First Age. Aside from that, you’re assuming they don’t have a divine sponsor protecting them,” he noted. Anyone not familiar with the demon would have missed the sarcasm surrounding the word “divine.”
Niran frowned. “I don’t think so,” he demurred, fighting off a sense of unease at the idea. “Storm is nothing more than a wandering sell-sword, a barbarian, offering his services to the highest bidder. Why would the gods care about him?”
Xyphren hid a smile at the disquiet he heard in his voice. The brief moment in Storm’s mind during the fight at the camp had shown him to be a Ghibbore from Elder Earth – with all that implied – but nothing required him to tell Niran that. Besides, it was pleasant to see the normally unflappable human thrown off balance for a change. He pressed his advantage, enjoying a tiny bit of revenge. “The gods often do strange things, and have championed stranger people than a sell-sword, particularly if one of them opposes whoever is backing you.” The identity of Niran’s Fallen patron was one the human hid well, but the list of possibilities was short. There was an equally short list of those who would strive against whoever it was. “It wouldn’t be the first time you humans were caught in a war between different gods using you for their own purposes,” he added with a low chuckle.
Niran stared coldly at him. Xyphren’s motives for steering the conversation in this direction were obvious, but there was an undercurrent of truth to his words too. People had been caught, all too often, in the never-ending struggles between the gods over the ages. The results were seldom encouraging. The Chaos Wars were proof of that. In fact, he’d nearly refused his patrons’ offer for precisely that very reason. They were using him to advance their own cause and their own power. They’d been brutally honest about it though. It was a power grab, plain and simple. They stood to gain tremendous power if everything went as planned. In the end, it had been that that decided him. The rewards for them were so huge the chances of a double-cross were practically nil.
There was a downside though; their scheme would be impossible to hide forever. It was inevitable that eventually, the other gods would uncover the plot. They’d given him the bloodstone, partially as insurance against that day. That wasn’t supposed to happen until his conquests, and the all-important changes he’d make in the fallen nations became so numerous the other gods couldn’t help but notice. That day should be many years in the future though, not now. Discovery at this point would be disastrous. A tingle of fear ran down his spine as he contemplated the possible consequences of failure. Eternal damnation would be the least of his worries if their plan was uncovered too early.
He turned his attention back to the demon who was watching him curiously. Xyphren owed a shaky allegiance, unknowingly, to the same gods who were backing him. If he revealed the truth to him, the demon’s attitude was certain to undergo a radical shift. Would it be the right one though? Anyone allied with his patrons would suffer horribly if they failed. Terror at the prospect might send Xyphren running to inform the other gods in hopes of currying their favor or at least avoiding punishment.
Niran shook his head to himself. No, that wouldn’t do. Perhaps when things were sufficiently advanced he could risk it, but until then the demon would have to stay in the dark. The problem now was making sure things got to that point, which meant dealing with Storm’s little band in the most decisive manner possible.
“Fly up to the bottom of the trail,” he ordered abruptly. “Search the area until you find them, but without being seen. Check if they’re carrying anything powerful enough to be an artifact then report back to me at once.”
The demon snarled at the power of the command coming through the bloodstone. “I hear and obey, Master,” he growled angrily. The air distorted around him and he vanished.
Niran sat back in his throne, watching the candle gutter and die. Having made a decision he immediately felt better. If Xyphren reported back they had an artifact, it meant the great scheme hadn’t been detected yet, and he could breathe a little easier. Of course, it still put Storm’s group in the “extremely dangerous” category – an artifact was nothing to sneeze at – but at least he wouldn’t have to worry about paying an eternal price for his actions just yet.
As the candle went out he smiled in the darkness. If everything went as planned, he might never have to worry about paying a price for his actions.