As quickly as he realized he was falling to his death, Storm hit the ground with a snow-muffled thud. He blinked in surprise.
He sat up and banged his head against his pegasus’ hooves. The winged beast was barely fluttering above the ground, a stream of red running down his side where one of the giant’s missiles had struck him. Storm had to roll out of the way as he set down with whinny of pain, stumbling as his hooves met the slippery ground.
Thudding footsteps warned him of coming danger. He sprang to his feet and flung himself down a nearby slope. A huge impact, the giant’s fist or another boulder, he didn’t have time to look, shook the ground behind him. Nearby trees shivered and dumped snow off their branches.
He grabbed a boulder sticking out of the ground and used it as a pivot to change direction and lurch to his feet at the same time. He came out of it at a dead run, sword in hand, although he had no memory of drawing it.
The giant saw him and raised a huge fist in the air to pulverize him. Over his pale shoulder Storm saw Lorelei above unleashing a rain of arrows at the giant’s exposed back. The monster bellowed with fresh pain but wouldn’t be distracted from his intended target.
Storm ducked and rolled under the massive fist, the wind from it’s passage whipping his hair around his face.
I can’t win, he realized.
Time spiraled down to a stop and for a silent moment he had an endless eternity to consider his options.
This was a battle of strength he couldn’t possibly hope to win. Storm was far stronger than most men but the giant’s brute strength made a mockery of his own. It was like a newborn facing a seasoned warrior. The outcome was never in doubt. Maybe Durin and his fellow dwarves could fight giants and win, but they’d had thousands of years to hone their craft; eons of experience he didn’t possess.
The giant was also quicker than anything its size had a right to be. It was like an elephant that could run as fast as a cheetah. It was an affront to the laws of nature.
Strength, speed, reach, the giant had it all. And it was apparently unkillable by ordinary weapons. Lorelei had already turned it into a pin cushion she’d fired so many arrows at it, but none of them were able to penetrate its thick hide more an inch or two. In spite of it roaring in pain, she wasn’t really hurting it.
That left only magic. He only had two combat spells at his disposal and he’d already used one of them. The only thing he had left was one lightning bolt and his sixth sense for danger was telling him clearly, in no uncertain terms, that it wouldn’t be enough.
The only other possibility it left was his Ghibbore power.
“To heal or to harm,” the Voice had told him in his dream.
He’d used it many times to heal, but only once before had he used to do harm, when they fought the demon the second time, in Niran’s throne room at Mount Coldfire.
So be it, he thought.
That thought completed some circuit and time began to speed up. Struggling desperately to his feet he dove frantically for the giant’s closest leg, hand outstretched to touch him. The sound came back on in his ears and the roaring of the giant told him it was reaching down to grab him.
His fingers made contact with the giant’s icy skin and he pushed his power into it, reaching for creature’s heart, to rend it and tear it to pieces where it sat.
A startled cough sounded just above his head. He threw himself to the side, looking back and up as he did. The giant, half-crouched to grab him, was clawing weakly at its chest. The pale eyes rolled back in its massive head and suddenly it went limp. Storm scrabbled across the snow covered rocks, dignity forgotten in his rush to get out from under the falling mass.
He barely made it, the great torso crashing to the ground mere inches behind him. The ground shook from the impact and he lost his footing. He rolled and slid across the ground until he fetched up hard against a tree.
Silence reigned for a moment.
Then, a shimmering haze seemed to rise up from the giant’s body, a haze seemingly shaped like a giant. “Unclothed,” it shrieked, or tried to shriek in a whispery voice he could barely hear.
His eyes widened in surprise and superstitious fear. It was like something out of The Exorcist.
A moment later a whirlwind, a vortex, as insubstantial as the hazy form he was watching, appeared behind it, pulling it down, down, down, infinitely far down to nowhere. Then, both of them were gone.
He struggled to his feet just as Lorelei landed. “What was that?” he croaked.
She spun around, an arrow knocked, searching for a target. “What? Where?”
“It was the giant.” His voice didn’t sound like his own. He coughed to clear it. “There was a ghost or something.”
She eyed him closely.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he protested. “It came out of the giant, then this, I don’t, this whirlwind, or something, came and sucked it away.”
She lowered her bow. “You killed it with your Ghibbore power?” She indicated the giant with a nod of her head.
It wasn’t quite a question but he answered it anyway. “Yes.”
“Well then, maybe that let you see what happened to its soul,” she said thoughtfully.
Now that the shock was receding he recalled something Gerald had told him during one of their conversations. Storm had discovered if he asked Gerald a question before he could pose one of his own about Earth, the elderly wizard would go off on a tangent like one of the college professors he so much resembled.
Storm had asked about demons on one of those occasions, setting Gerald off on a long, rambling discussions on the finer points of demonology. Most of it went in one ear and out the other, but one part stuck with him.
“You know, Gerald told me one time when a giant dies its soul becomes a demon.”
Lorelei had begun retrieving her arrows from the massive form. She paused. “You mean like the one we fought in Ingold?”
“Yeah. Maybe that’s what I saw, its soul being dragged down to Hell to become a demon,” he suggested. “Weird.”
She arched one eyebrow at him.
She shook her head. “Most people would be dumbstruck at seeing something like that, but not you. Oh no. You just shrug it off as ‘weird’,” she laughed. She cocked her head. “Are all the people on Earth like you?”
Storm recalled a line from the first Superman movie he’d always wanted to use and decided this was the perfect time for it. “Uh, not really, no.”
“Hmph.” She turned to his pegasus, limping around in circles, one wing hanging uselessly. “You better do something about that. If you’ve got any power left,” she added questioningly.
He gratefully accepted the abrupt change of subject. “I do.” He strode over his pegasus. It shied away from him. “Whoa, boy. I got this. Let me help you.” His gentle tone calmed the animal long enough for him to get one hand on its neck. He pushed healing power into it and the winged horse’s eyes widened abruptly as its wounds healed.
It flapped its wings experimentally, looking from him to its wings in evident disbelief. It stomped around in a circle then took off into the air. It swooped around a tight circle then came back down to a landing on its back legs, rearing like a horse in an old western.
It trotted over, nudging his chest and whickering gratefully.
He patted it with a laugh. “There you go, boy. All better now.”
It whinnied and shoved its head harder at him, rubbing up and down in a show of equine affection.
“Looks like you’ve got a friend for life,” Lorelei smiled. Their pegasi had been loyal since they found them atop Niran’s mountain fortress but not unduly loving. This represented a significant change in attitude.
“I guess so,” he agreed. He looked at the pegasus. “How about I name you after my first war horse, Specter. Would you like that, boy? Hmm?”
The pegasus tossed his head in agreement, or what Storm took for agreement. “Okay! Specter you are then!” He grabbed the reins and mounted up.
Lorelei followed his example, but born horsewoman that she was, she vaulted gracefully into the saddle, making it look smooth and effortless. “Ready to get out of here?”
Storm nodded. “Absolutely. Where there are one of those things there are bound to be more. Let’s get as high as we can. I don’t want to have to go through that again.”
She followed him up into the sky, their mounts flapping hard to gain altitude.
It was a valiant effort but as they penetrated further into the mountains it wasn’t enough. The pegasi could only fly so high before the air became too thin to sustain them, and Mount Wainsford towered far above that point. By the time they reached the low pass on the flanks of the mountain, they were barely skimming above the snow. If they’d had to go any higher they’d have been forced to run along the ground.
Their mounts were breathing hard as the crested the pass and started down the other side, spreading their wings to soar on the warm air currents rising from the Dales far below.
Storm had long chaffed under the slow speed of travel on Gaia and having a pegasus at his beck and call was a welcome relief. He eyed the distant hill country spread out beyond the mountains then nudged Specter over closer to Lorelei. “I think we’ll be in the Dales by evening,” he shouted across the gap.
“As long as we stay away from them,” she agreed, pointing at massive figures high above them on the slopes of Mount Wainsford.
Storm’s eyes widened at the sight of three more frost giants, made tiny by distance, but still menacing. “Do you think they’ve seen us?”
“Let’s not find out.”
“Yeah.” He laid down flat on Specter’s back as she did the same thing on her pegasus. Perhaps this way the giants would only see a couple of pegasi winging their way through the sky.
It must have worked because the giants never came after them. Within a few minutes they were out of sight.
They sat back up on their mounts. “You know,” Storm said, “if Durin manages to convince those dwarves of his identity, maybe he can organize them to come up here and kill those blasted giants. That would open up an other road though these mountains.”
“The mountain road through Ingold is fine,” Lorelei objected.
“Yeah, but for how much longer? You know how Alaric and Jeffery are turning everything upside-down in their fight for the throne.” Lorelei nodded but he wasn’t done. “The only other way out of Aroon is to go all the way up to Crater Lake and across the Four Fingers, but then you have to pay their ridiculous tolls to use the bridges.” He shook his head. “If Ingold falls apart or gets taken over by Carrzulm, the city-states on Aroon and along the coast will need another trade route.”
Lorelei continued to be amazed by her other-worldly husband. In the midst of their own battles and troubles he was still thinking of others. She was still turning it over in her mind later that evening as they spiraled down to the bare top of a rocky hill on the edge of the Dales.
When they landed, they discovered that the rocks poking out of the ground were actually the crumbling remains of an ancient fortress or outpost. Storm liked having some rock walls, however low or incomplete, to hide behind in case of attack. Lorelei agreed and they pitched camp. The lingering rays of the setting sun made it balmy, a forerunner of summer.
The Dales, or the hill country as it was often called, had never been known for mines or riches of any sort other than good black earth for farming. Small hamlets dotted the landscape, each surrounded by terraced farms built on the sides of the gently sloping hills.
Lorelei was new to the hill country but Storm had been through it three times during his years with the caravans. There had never been any real trouble on any of those trips. He thought the Dales were probably the most peaceful place on Gaia for a thousand miles in any direction.
The stars were fully out by the time they finished eating.
After cleaning and putting everything away, Lorelei stood up by the flickering fire, kicked off her boots and began undoing the laces on her shirt, her eyes locked on his with a sultry gleam in them.
Storm cocked his head in wonder. “Here? Now?”
She purred at him as her clothes dropped to the ground. “Remember, you married a Biqah woman, my lord. This is how we were meant to pleasure each other, under the open sky.”
He pulled her down to their blankets. “My lady, I will remember that!”