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- Avatar of Fire -
The Circlet of Power – Avatar of Fire Copyright 2008 by Matthew John Stewart All rights reserved. ISBN: 978-1-4357-0869-3
The scarlet light of the slowly rising sun did little to burn off the thick, ever-present mists that enveloped Bloodfever Swamp. Sprawled like a diseased corpse over miles of otherwise verdant land between Mirror Lake and the tiny kingdom of Duskhelm, the vast marsh grew like a cancer. Almost as if it were possessed of an insidious intellect, the mire stretched forth tendrils of stagnant water, poisoning the soil around it and seeming to drain the life from everything it touched. Though famed across the land for its toxic environs, the swamp was far from lifeless. In addition to the virulent plagues birthed in its vile marshes, the polluted land served as home to twisted, nightmarish mockeries of nature: animals warped and maddened by the tainted atmosphere. Huge, ravenous Ghoul-Wolves prowled the rotting countryside, unearthing and feasting upon the long-dead corpses of beasts and travelers that had found their ends in hidden pools of mud. Gigantic Dreadbats fluttered on ungainly wings through the foul air, searching for living things on which to slake their thirst for blood. Though all manner of darksome creatures slithered and crawled throughout the swamp, it was eerily silent. The thick, dirty fog muffled all save the distant and directionless howling of the wolves. In the very center of this blighted land a ruined tower thrust itself upward from the marshy ground like a slowly sinking man in quicksand, straining to resist the inevitable pull. Shaped like a great and unadorned monolith, even when whole the tower could not have been anything but ugly and now, locked in its death
throes. staring like a sightless eye into the endless gray distance. those horrible eyes fastened firmly upon the softly pulsing stone. Its source. Dim memories of life began to seep slowly back into the corpse's mind. The gigantic blocks of black stone were cracked and decaying. He was…Kalkamar. Kalkamar Del’Gory. Suddenly the heavy silence was shattered by the rough scrape of stone on stone. in the midst of a deadly swamp to ensure his solitude and security 4 . as though the gem’s signal had gone unnoticed. brightened until the whole of the chamber was washed in its cold radiance. this tower. its floor now forming an incomplete ceiling for the rooms below. and a thick curtain of dust took to the air like an unsettled bird as the lid of an ornate sarcophagus began to shift. dusty jewel ensconced atop a fluted stone pillar. That was the way he had liked it. Raised by magic. The dim blue light grew steadily in strength. Finally. the massive lid grated aside and toppled to the floor. He remembered this room. Propelled by skeletal arms clothed in scraps of rotten cloth. a light glowed. it was hideous. the sickly green pinpricks of light that glowed from its empty eye sockets roving about the once grand room. Some tremendous force had shattered the topmost chamber. the resulting crash causing the whole tower to shudder. a colorless. an archmage of great power but little repute. one stone block after another. For a long time nothing moved. The decaying shell that had once been a human wizard stood and surveyed the slowly collapsing chamber. From the one remaining window. and many had toppled from the sagging walls to form an uneven ring about the wide base.
seeking…something important. Feeling his end approaching. Though the glowing lights in his eye sockets betrayed no change. sorting though his jumbled memories. he had searched. even his most powerful rejuvenating spells failing to restore his lost vitality.while he busied himself with his research and experiments. For years. This phylactery acted as a conduit. He sought an item. of Lichdom. something elusive. Kalkamar’s desiccated body radiated concentration as he sought to remember the jewel’s purpose. But 5 . He had been on a quest of some sort. having spent his entire life in finding only one taunting clue after another. The powerful spells that he wove had drained him of the last of his strength. painstakingly following obscure hints and cold trails. The flow of memories increased in speed and intensity. insistent call. imprisoning it within an enchanted urn. tying his soul to the world of the living and enabling his consciousness to continue to reside within his time-ravaged carcass. the lich’s inhuman eyes flickered with sudden understanding. tearing his own hair out each time his goal seemed to slip deliberately through his fingers. he had turned to the powers of Undeath. It was to alert him. in desperation. he had grown too old and feeble to continue his search. to awaken him from his death-sleep as he waited for the centuries to pass. destroying other Seekers when he had encountered them. decades. At last. After a moment spent in silent concentration. but had also captured his soul as it fled his body. sending out its silent. an ancient artifact of immeasurable power. flooding into his mind like a river and driving the fog from his thoughts. that much was obvious. Still the gem pulsed.
“You have done well. Kalkamar waved a rotten hand over the stone and the image vanished. Slowly an image appeared within the crystalline depths and Kalkamar addressed his servant in a dry. Alone again in the unbroken gloom of his tower. Kalkamar bent his gaze upon the jewel and concentrated. He had given to each of his minions a duplicate of this jewel – a scrying lens. his memories informed him .” With those words. Great reward will be yours when you deliver the artifact to me. the ragged remains of once fine black robes whispering over the cracked and moldy stones. oozing from the 6 . I know of mortal failings too well to trust so valuable an item in your care for long. the undead mage raised his hands to the sky and gave a hoarse. he had sent forth agents to the places his research suggested the artifact pieces may have been hidden.with instructions to contact him when they had secured their portion. snake-like hiss. "At last it will be mine! Soon I will have the power of the very gods themselves!" The jagged laughter continued. Soon a humorless smile of triumph tore its way across Kalkamar’s decayed features and he spoke again. Kalkamar took a ragged breath. shriveled and torn lungs coughing out dust as they tried to expand. Gliding swiftly across the uneven floor to the pillar supporting the gem. mortal? Pain will be the price unless this is most worthwhile. Speak!” The figure within the stone seemed to say something and the gaunt figure of the lich paused as if listening. Before entering his death-sleep. my servant.why? The artifact! As the realization of what this call could mean hit him. Bring it soon. choking laugh. this time in a pleased tone. though no sound emanated from the jewel. “Why have you disturbed me.
flickering shadows in the unnatural light. Memories began to filter through the ruby’s consciousness: memories of glorious destruction. But things had not gone as the Makers had planned. their anger. for the dragon's mind had been too formidable to overcome in its weakened state. but they were unable. For all their power. The piles of other. of smoke-filled skies and roaring infernos…and of being captured. betrayed by the very ones that forged it. Slowly the light blazing from the ruby faded as the stone calmed. Thin ribbons of steam began to snake into the air as the heat of the gem’s fury melted the rock around it. The dragon's attack had leveled the prison-fortress and the mighty Wyrm had taken the shiny bauble for its hoard. Flame had sensed their fear. the Makers could not undo that which their foolish pride had brought into being. its power shackled and drained. The rough stone walls of the dragon’s cave pulsed with a bloody glow as the giant ruby flared with power. lesser treasures cast strange. drowning even the ever-hungry howls of the Ghoul-wolves. Defeat! It had been imprisoned. So they had bound it within a place that could not burn and there it was to have stayed imprisoned for all eternity. Its captors had meant to destroy it. concealing its true 7 . Flame had lain inert and silent amid the piles of lesser treasures.tower like a poisonous river and pouring across the tormented land. scepters. *** Flame awoke. The air itself seemed to burn as floating particles of dust ignited in the rising heat. remembering its rescue. crowns and swords becoming shadow monsters that capered madly across the walls. Yet still Flame was not free.
At last. it could wait a little more. Flame knew that other creatures would soon arrive.nature and waiting with a level of patience only an eternal being could know. and Flame desperately needed to replenish its strength. the promise of an unguarded draconian hoard would lure adventurers as little else could. The crimson radiance lessened further as Flame considered its options. It had waited for centuries. Its power had been greatly diminished by centuries of lying dormant. content. there must be nothing unusual to frighten it. The ruby glowed brightly for a moment as it once more felt the call of the flammable world outside. Swiftly mastering its excitement. The stone required a host: a weak-willed creature that it could easily dominate. In the renewed gloom Flame huddled. With the dragon dead. even in its drained state. CHAPTER 2 Nervously wiping his filthy hands on leather 8 . It had to gather its remaining power and prepare to possess the first acceptable creature that wandered close. When a suitable host arrived. and the great Wyrm had succumbed to death. Soon it would be truly free. Flame extinguished its radiance and the cave was plunged into darkness once more. time had done what no enemy could.
" With a sneer that curled his thick lips back from his jutting tusks. scum?" The orc punctuated the question by spitting pointedly at the ground by Flagg's oversized feet. Flagg tried to act confident.leggings that were already shiny with grime. The air inside the tent was choking with the thick. "What you want. Flagg's courage deserted him entirely. Knowing that showing weakness would only spur the cruel creatures on. the orc to Flagg's right stooped and lifted the diminutive goblin off the ground by the front of his dirty tunic. crossed arms the width of Flagg's head and glared down at the shivering goblin. wearing patchwork plate armor made up of the battlefield-scavenged remains of dozens of different suits. his feet kicking helplessly in the air. mostly 9 . At last the huge shape of Fogin's tent loomed before him. his darting eyes and nervously rubbing hands betraying his fear of the meeting to come. the frightened creature sidled up to the entrance. Clutching his ragged tunic close. and Flagg's shaking increased. Flagg was carried into the tent and flung unceremoniously to the hard packed earth floor. Like all goblins. Flagg skulked through the maze of ramshackle tents. Flagg was not long on courage and just the idea of being in close proximity to his brutal leader made him tremble violently. Skulls. cloying smell of the poorly cured hides. "Me scout. Meager illumination came from a pair of torches mounted on stands that cast weak puddles of dirty yellow light across a crude throne built of thick branches lashed roughly together. Nose to nose with the muscular soldier. The orcs. Master want me to be tellings him how digging be going. Wailing and scrabbling futilely in the iron-like grip holding him suspended. flanked by a pair of the ogre’s elite fighters.
his mere appearance on a battlefield was enough to send hardened soldiers running and his own troops. grinned sightlessly down at the sprawled goblin from their perches atop the chair's high back. His arms pinned to his sides. the ogre warlord was a terrifying sight. and the wicked scars that crisscrossed his gigantic frame bore mute testimony to the number of times that strength had been tested. Come to tell Master about digging. a clear jewel stood atop a slim. It was a testament to his incredible physical and martial prowess that Fogin had remained in control of his barbaric and brutal troops for so many years. carved pedestal behind the throne. sparkling even in the dim light." A massive arm. 10 . Flagg had time to peer at it curiously for just a moment before a sudden movement grabbed his attention and forced a yelp from his throat. Armored in a motley collection of metal plates and whitened bones. Standing fully nine feet tall. The makeshift throne groaned as though in relief as a huge figure rose to tower over both Flagg and his captor. laying waste to armies and cities both that stood in his way. and a chest that seemed fully capable of stopping a charging horse. Even the orc's gravelly voice was subdued as he gestured to Flagg with one thick arm. dwarfing the soldier’s. In stark contrast to the rough and barbaric appearance of the rest of the décor. Fogin had led his ragtag army from one end of Corinth to the other. "This one say he's a scout. reached down and fingers each the width of Flagg’s leg clamped around the goblin’s torso. with shoulders twice as wide as the orc standing submissively in his shadow. ribs aching in the crushing grip. Flagg could do nothing but stare wild-eyed into the face of his fearsome master.human along with a few elven.
as fearful of him as his enemies. No one ever heard the man speak. howling in pursuit. A man who remained night and day robed and hooded so that his face was never seen. An almost blade-straight border marked the edge of the dragon's territory as the formerly verdant landscape gave sudden way to bare rock and trees withered by the unrelenting heat that radiated from Hell’s Gate. seeming almost to fear him. The grumbles of dissatisfaction had turned to open anger as the soldiers drew closer and discovered the cave mouth had been blocked by a massive landslide of rubble. little progress had been made in clearing the cave's entrance. Fogin had set a crushing pace and within a matter of days the barbaric force crossed the greater part of the Draath Mountains and arrived at their destination: Hell’s Gate. and the advancing troops soon spotted the gigantic cave halfway up the mountain’s side. no one had dared to argue openly with their brutal leader. and one day as suddenly as he had appeared. Though there were rumbles of anger and fear from the horde at the idea of marching into a dragon's territory. and large boulders had to be pried from their resting places by 11 . It was then that Fogin had announced that the army would march to Serpent's Run. the mountain that was home to the dragon Karrathroxis. a strange man had appeared in the orcish camp. though he and Fogin were seen together several times. After three days of arduous work. the soldiers fell to the digging with a marked lack of enthusiasm. The going was difficult as the loose dirt merely slid to refill any hole as soon as it was made. Even with several of the loudest complainers made "examples of". A few weeks ago. the man was gone. Fogin had treated this stranger with surprising respect.
a long. not warriors. "Master. the enormous fingers opened. They be useless children." The orc snarled and grumbled something inaudible as Fogin pushed past him on his way out of the tent opening. suitable only for battle-fodder. the digging be stopped. The orc scrabbled frantically for the axe hanging at his 12 . "How far. Suddenly. Like rock grating against iron. Fogin's voice rumbled from deep within his cavernous chest as his small eyes held the quivering goblin pinned." The massive fist holding him aloft began to tighten. "Please. his voice sounded like a pathetic squeak next to the powerful thunder of Fogin's. Fogin spared the semi-conscience goblin no heed as he turned his glower on the orcish guard. there is rock! Last rock! Big rock! Too big to move! Master.the skulls that seemed to watch him and eagerly await his joining them in their silent vigil. muscled arm the size of a small tree thrust itself back into the tent and caught him by the throat. "Fighters be weak. and Flagg began to shiver uncontrollably as he stared into the small. and Flagg gasped out a frantic explanation. Flagg licked his thick lips and tried not to look at the gruesome trophies decorating the throne . When he spoke. squirming desperately but vainly in the crushing grip. Still." Gulping as best his dry throat allowed. mercy! Fighters can do nothing! Rock will not shift! Mercy!" Flagg's vision began to darken. As he turned to follow. the smelly interior of the tent fading as his lungs fought vainly to expand against the iron-like grasp. Fogin wasn't interested in excuses. bloodshot eyes of his master.the combined muscle of teams of straining orcs. and for a brief moment Flagg felt as though he was flying before he smashed painfully into the hard floor.
and the orc's head lolled uselessly on his shoulders. A cry leapt from his throat as his gaze alighted on the contorted body of the orcish guard. his limbs shaking with the 13 . he was alone. a cry of amazement from the direction of the dig drew him cautiously forward. With a grunt of exertion. the rock didn’t move. nothing seemed to happen. not daring to move. The remaining guard wisely kept his eyes focused straight ahead and stood motionlessly at attention until his master had stumped past. Fogin began to pull. Dropping the body to the ground like refuse. The orcish soldiers. he abandoned the idea. stood arrayed in a rough semicircle around the imposing figure of Fogin. *** Flagg groaned as he sat up and looked cautiously around. The only sounds were the strained gasps of breath from Fogin and the creaking of his joints. The ogre had planted his gnarled feet widely in front of an enormous boulder and grasped it tightly with his huge gnarled hands. Dashing out of the tent opening. Standing uncertainly before the tent. There was a loud cracking sound. Almost as soon as the thought had surfaced in his mind though. the orc stood trembling. Fogin turned and continued on his way to the dig. Flagg considered continuing his run until he was out of the camp. He had seen how Fogin dealt with deserters. Groaning with effort. Even after the ogre had vanished from sight. and he scrambled away on all fours. The tent was empty. For many breaths. Then. Peering around the trunk of a heat-twisted aspen. slowly the giant boulder began to shift. along with a handful of goblin scouts like Flagg himself. Flagg’s yellow eyes widened in wonder at the scene before him.belt in the long moment before the ogre's arm twitched.
The ogre’s feet were driven into the ground under the tremendous pressure. Finally. standing out beneath his dirty skin like steel cables. turning him to face his master. Reaching down with a huge hand. shaking the ground and throwing up a cloud of dust.incredible strain. Fogin gave 14 . his gaze fell upon the goblin that had reported the problematic rock. Looking around at his soldiers. Peering in. his soldiers gave vent to a barbaric cheer for their invincible lord. all of whom were making every effort to avoid his eye. Taking pride in the fear he caused. with a cry of fury at the boulder's stubborn resistance. but baring his yellow. Flagg found he could do nothing but gulp. cracked teeth in a triumphant grin. As he raised his thick arms over his head. Panting and quivering. Staring into the ogre’s cruel eyes from an uncomfortably close proximity for the second time in less than an hour. and stale air wheezed out like sour breath. At last the mouth of the cave stood open. and his powerful muscles bulged and tore. Fogin began to lift the mighty boulder. Fogin stared around at his minions as they picked themselves up off the dirt. Fogin swept the huge rock into the air and flung it away. Fogin found that he couldn’t see anything beyond the first several feet as the rest of the tunnel disappeared swiftly into the gloom. The gathered soldiers dove out of the path of the missile. but Fogin was upon him in three lumbering strides. sprawling face first in the dirt as the heavy stone smashed to earth behind them. he caught the diminutive creature by the back of his dirty tunic and hauled him off the ground. The creature tried to duck behind a tree.
Squinting back into the warm sunlight he saw Fogin stretch out comfortably under the tree while his soldiers ambled about the clearing entertaining themselves in the traditional orcish fashion: by destroying as much as possible. Desperately he prayed to whatever goblin gods might be listening that there wouldn’t be a dragon lurking somewhere in the darkness ahead of him. *** Flagg stole through the gloom. At last. Flagg bounced and tumbled painfully until he finally rolled to a stop several feet down the tunnel. Flagg wrapped his skinny arms about himself and shuddered.” Not wasting any more of his foul breath on the frightened scout. Flagg crawled forward on hands and knees into the grasping darkness. Fogin leaned his wide back comfortably against the tree and waited for his scout’s report that all was clear. his fear of the 15 . using his innate night vision to guide him. or for the screams. unable to think of a way to escape his predicament. Flagg crept slowly forward. whichever it happened to be. and the walls still bore giant claw-marks as testament to the strength and size of the beast that had gouged away the solid rock. “Get inside and make sure is safe for troops. Swallowing the instinct that screamed for him to flee. The floor of the tunnel had been worn smooth by the scraping of iron-hard scales.the goblin a shake before speaking. Fogin turned and tossed him into the darkness of the cave with a flick of his powerful arm. whining almost continuously under his breath. Outside. Turning back to gaze into the inky depths.
. As Flagg strutted up to the huge skull something 16 . He could feel the difference in the air: the passage widened into an open room a few paces before him.but no. If it had been capable of physical movement. The dragon had not moved! Perhaps it be sleeping. After a few more minutes. The very attribute that made this creature a good bet for a host also made it likely to flee in terror if Flame acted too fast. He cowered down flat on the floor. Flagg swaggered boldly out into the open and approached the skull. he poked his head through the doorway and scanned the chamber. he cracked them with his teeth and sucked out sweetness after the meat was gone! Gaining confidence upon seeing that his enemy was deceased. Goblins were infamous for their cowardice as well as their weak minds. Cautiously. After a few minutes of scrabbling at the rock and not being devoured. After what seemed an eternity of sneaking along the winding tunnel. He tried his best to scream in terror when his gaze alighted on a gigantic tooth-studded head mere feet from him. Carefully…carefully. It was dead! It was bones! Bones could not hurt him. skittering about like a spider and frantically attempting to squeeze himself into a small crack in the wall. Such a perfect host! And so soon! Flame needed to execute these next moves carefully and methodically. Flagg slowly lifted his head.. its eyes were open.tangible danger behind him greater than that of the unknown one ahead. Flagg squinted and looked harder. but all that emerged from his constricted throat was a pitiful squeak. he even dared to peer again into the room. Flagg sensed that a larger space lay ahead. Flame would have shivered with anticipation as it sensed the proximity of the goblin.
Protection. Behind his eyes. sending tendrils of mental power burrowing into Flagg's mind. the bullying ogre who had sent him into a dragon’s lair alone. it promised him.caught his eye. Trembling until Flagg made a small gesture and sent a geyser of flame that washed over the ogre’s flailing body 17 . Fogin. at last curling his fingers around it and lifting it gently from its resting-place. commanding. compelling. I will immolate your enemies and give you dominion over all you survey. I will keep you warm on cold nights. not even noticing the piles of other treasures scattered about the room. It had begun to glow. Sidling closer to the strange object. Flagg was able to make out what it was: an enormous ruby! Unblinking. something else about it caught his attention. coaxing. trembling on his knees at Flagg’s feet. Softly pulsing. his eyes frozen open with greed. images began forming. and all that should be yours will be! A slow smile stretched Flagg’s thick lips. As he stared. He saw towns collapse under the heat and weight of great molten rivers. The ruby sensed the goblin’s fears and desires. Flagg moved over to it. Take me up! Wield me. Flagg slowly reached out a hand and stroked the gem. humans and elves igniting like torches…but one image stood out: Fogin. Flame bent its will upon the goblin. It came as no surprise to Flagg when the voice began speaking to him in his head. I will defend you from those who would do you harm. It seemed perfectly natural. It was a deep red. square-cut gem the size of his fist. and worked swiftly to use them to its advantage. and outshone the other treasures piled about it as the sun outshone the moon. something that flashed and gleamed in the darkness. In seconds Flame was inside the creature’s thoughts. I am power.
and he had no qualms about using this moment of insubordination to tighten his grip on his chaotic soldiers. *** Fogin started to his feet when the diminutive form of the goblin scout reappeared in the entrance of the cave. His small eyes narrowed even further in suspicion when the creature didn’t slink toward him as it normally would. square teeth as he anticipated the coming confrontation. This pathetic creature’s fear was giving his mind unusual strength. Still smiling. He had survived enough to sense when one was coming. Flame spoke reassuringly in Flagg’s head. Instead. Fogin pointed at it with a bulky finger. Fogin curled his lip in contempt. and Flagg began to tremble as terror lifted the cloud from his mind. the insolent beast just stood and stared levelly at him. 18 . Standing up to Fogin? Death was the best he could hope for! Flame moved quickly to reassert control. showing his large. the ogre lumbered towards the motionless goblin. Undoubtedly. Fogin grinned. He recalled past tortures and agonies associated with that cruel voice. the stupid thing had found something that it believed would enable it to defeat him.and swept him away…. “What you find!” Noticing the gigantic ruby clutched in the goblin's fist. the other soldiers in his warband also moving in closer as tension filled the air like a silent storm. and his watery yellow eyes widened in panic as he realized what he was doing. "What that!" The sound of his thunderous voice seemed to bring the goblin to life. Fogin stomped up to Flagg and stood glaring down at the goblin from his towering height.
“I want him to fear!” 19 . What would his soldiers think? How could he maintain control over his brutish minions if he showed his mounting concern over a mere four-foot goblin? Even now. This ogre is as nothing before your might. Flagg shouted into the darkness of his own head. It was then that Flagg spoke. “So! The insolent one sees death before it! Hah! You will beg me for death. some of the stupider orcs were chuckling coarsely at the sight of a goblin back-talking to an ogre’s knees. even such a one as this simple ogre. You should destroy it first. I am here to help you. The gathered orcs milled about in wonder. then move on to his band. you can destroy armies. and Fogin paused to collect himself. “You are dust. You exist only as fuel for my power. “I want him to fear me! I want him to beg for mercy!” It is foolish to underestimate the power of an enemy. and it angered him. so alien. but not before Fogin noticed. It was a hungry voice. A voice that echoed with vast. With me at your command. Fogin felt a twinge of fear. but I will not be merciful! You will wiggle like a worm before I finally crush you!” It was as long and eloquent a speech as the ogre had ever attempted.” The voice that spoke these puzzling words was so different. and all will tremble at your coming! Flagg’s trembling ceased. Sweep him aside. from Flagg’s normal whining tone that it rocked Fogin back on his mental heels. Flagg retained just enough willpower to countermand Flame’s desire to simply incinerate the ogre where he stood.Fear not. ominous power and barely contained violence. It is the most formidable of your foes here. to dust you return. From dust you arose.
Still he remained motionless. The creature’s yellow eyes opened and glared at Fogin with disturbing intensity as Flagg turned with ominous slowness and pointed at one of the orcs in the crowd. With a single thought. the goblin appeared to be having a fit of some sort. Technically. He could take it. feeling his huge muscles bulge and ripple under his thick skin. and his body trembled as if in the grip of a disease. It would seem as though he was afraid of it. Flagg tried to bring his hand down. Fogin flexed his arms and chest. The goblin’s body abruptly ceased its shaking as Flame relinquished control. but so long as the host retained the ability to give orders. or anyone else. It sensed the goblin’s stubbornness and knew that he couldn’t be reasoned with. never having time to scream. It died where it stood. and as such the stone couldn’t directly refuse his commands. he was the Wielder. the stone could not refuse them. the mere presence of the stone would warp. degrade.Flame sighed to itself. It would weaken his hold over his band if he took advantage of the goblin’s obvious weakness and smashed it. He wanted to 20 . The jewel in his left hand pulsed with a molten glow and a white-hot jet of liquid fire burst from Flagg’s pointing finger and rolled over the unfortunate soldier. could dish out. he unleashed Flame. whatever “it” happened to be. Fogin knew that this was the time to strike his enemy stood defenseless and vulnerable. thus showing that he could take anything it. or unable to kill it in a fair fight. His eyes rolled back in his head. and finally destroy the host’s mind. It would be better for morale to allow it the first strike. To the watching soldiers. burly arms crossed over his massive chest. tried to stem the rising power surging through him. When it had regained enough of its depleted power. leaving the body an empty shell animated only by the ruby’s will.
Fogin stood. His hand refused to move. standing as if on an island in the midst of a hellish sea in which the anguished bodies of his soldiers leapt and thrashed like dolphins. blackened thing unrecognizable as having once been alive. Panic gripped him and he felt himself lose control entirely. It was forcing him out. burned to a charred. The last thought that passed through his fragmenting mind before the eternal darkness was: “No! You promised! You promised!” Fogin died soon after. In vain he tried to curb the forces swirling inside him as they fought to escape. with each tree that seemed to melt in upon itself under the intense heat. Both of the goblin’s hands sprayed webs of fire now and his eyes were those of a mad thing. wanted to see the fear in the ogre's eyes when he realized that death was inevitable. Flagg felt himself slipping away. He couldn’t contain the power he had awakened and it was too big to share his body.make Fogin beg. Soon the screams and 21 . It had been trapped for too long in that cave. A way out into the flammable world and it was not about to be caged again. and the inferno spread. With every agonized creature that flailed its life away on the ashy ground. and stared at the carnage around him. It had finally found a release. Flame grew brighter. He alone was untouched. lying dormant and unused. Helplessly he watched as the goblin twitched and cavorted in the grip of whatever power he had released. stunned. the stone that was the very embodiment of Fire grew stronger. Only Flagg’s desire to spare the ogre till last had kept him alive that long.
CHAPTER 3 Kalkamar was beside himself. filled with tower window with its misshapen bulk. The goblin stood in the center of the conflagration untouched by the dancing flames. 22 . attracted by the strange light. A muttered word and single. As the fires began to burn down and the greasy smoke started to clear. sending a massive fireball roaring out of the window and leaving the aperture rather larger than before. Flame was pleased. His rising emotion caused the energy being funneled into his protective spells to shift erratically. robes shedding bits and pieces of rotted cloth with each jagged step. The lich paced the room furiously. creating a strobbing effect as the hanging webwork of waiting enchantments pulsed with power. distracted thought blew it apart. There was much to be done. tooth-studded head peering into the room in hopes of discovering something edible. but more would take their place. These flames would die. Peering out through the creature’s eyes. A curious Dreadbat. Flame strode purposefully away from the cave.wails of the dying subsided and there was only the crackling of the hungry flames. a wistful smile on its face.
adversity or triumph. waiting for an opportune moment to swoop in and claim the prize. He had sensed the destruction of his agent’s scrying stone and immediately sent his awareness arrowing through the ether to view the area. Kalkamar returned to the patiently waiting scrying stone and called up the last image he had viewed.A wizard is calm and level-headed. the shell of a once mighty tree there. his temper under control once more. The ogre’s ragtag army would hardly have been a match for any mage of power. untouchable by failure or success. Perhaps another wizard had been scrying the ogre. A wizard remains aloof and withdrawn at all times. annihilation on a scale that he had never seen. flecks of gray. the voice of his long-dead mentor seeming to speak in his mind as he impressed upon the young and eager wizard-to-be the first and most important lesson of magecraft. Kalkamar gritted his teeth. Here and there small tongues of flame guttered from the sad remnants of living things: a vaguely humanoid body here. and Kalkamar studied it intensely. Every living thing for miles around was utterly destroyed. At length. Kalkamar silently repeated the words like a mantra. brittle enamel cracking loose and drifting to the floor. Had it been another wizard? It seemed the most logical conclusion. Aside from the dance of oily smoke on the breeze there was no sign of movement – no indication of what terrible force had wreaked this carnage. tracking his movements. trying to maintain his equilibrium as rage threatened to break free again. and he could hardly assume that he was the only one who sought the item’s power or suspected that a fragment was buried here. The scene of devastation returned instantly. The destruction was immense. 23 . even perhaps intercepting the rare communications between Kalkamar and his servant.
The power that had destroyed his minion had been drawn from elsewhere. Allowing the scene in the crystal to fade. even a powerful wizard should have left tracks. Every wizard accessed magic in a slightly different way. it was the ruby that had lain. The answer was so obvious! The power had been drawn from another plane: specifically the plane of Fire! And he could readily think of a powerful item that could tap into the primal elemental plane of Fire at will. His painstaking research had hinted that a piece of the artifact he sough was hidden somewhere in this vicinity. if enough power had been drawn.Still. There were no ripples in the Cloak in the area’s vicinity. Kalkamar frowned thoughtfully. the stupid ogre had attempted to claim the gem for himself. Obviously despite his strict instructions to merely secure the area and search for any likely structures or hiding places and then to contact Kalkamar himself for retrieval. Kalkamar straightened with such force that his ancient spine cracked and snapped with alarming volume. Like a fingerprint. Kalkamar walked over to a crumbling stone chair and 24 . the magical field was completely undisturbed. or…. these echoes remained for some time and a mage adept in reading them could roughly determine the level of skill of the active mage. possibly another dimension or plane of existence. The lich smiled in satisfaction. So. Even his or her identity. buried beneath the cold earth. a telltale “ripple” in the cloak of magical energy that shrouded the world and from which all mages drew their spells. but had failed to provide any clues as to which piece it might be. That left only extra-planar beings such as demons or angels. And the ancient texts that Kalkamar combed through for clues had been clear enough about what would happen to an incautious claimant failing to shield himself properly.
It possessed at least a modicum of intelligence and reasoning power. Massive destruction and lives lost had a way of upsetting local lords. whose…talents lent themselves particularly well to this type of mission. That fact made his quest at once easier and considerably more complicated. in any event. If he merely tracked it and kept a close watch. And it was not a mindless construct – the texts made that abundantly clear. perhaps when the opportune moment presented itself he could simply appear and take it with little resistance.sat. His mind decided. fueled by the endless combustion. its enormous power was no likely restored and would only continue increasing. Either way. I won’t do it. its mind distracted. the stone would be brought to battle. too great. The lich walked once more toward his scrying stone with an eager spring in his step. the item would be easy to track.” 25 . He must be contacted immediately. It would destroy as much as possible in its wandering. perhaps he need not confront it directly. On the other. It would be very difficult to subdue and the risk to him personally was great. One simply had to follow in its wake. after all these centuries. On one hand. who would then take one of two steps to rectify the situations: sent out an army. Its desire was nothing other than to burn. bony fingers stroking his decaying chin thoughtfully. There was a man he knew. Still. or hire a well-known band of adventures. Not yet. The item was in possession of a body now. its power depleted somewhat. Finally. he was making real progress! *** “No. Kalkamar rose to begin preparations immediately. it’s too dangerous.
“Have you forgotten that I am the guildmaster? I decide what jobs you take! You dare to stand here and refuse me? I could have you killed for such insolence!” Gregor stared calmly back. his entire body quivering with temper and one sausage-like finger poking Gregor repeatedly in the chest.” he reminded the recalcitrant Gregor. mustering his patience. not for a hundred thousand. Those folk have ways of protecting what’s theirs. “We are being compensated generously for this job. and had to be treated gently. This was Gregor “The Wraith” Frit he was talking to. locks and mechanical snares are one thing. and I haven’t achieved what I have without making some very highly-connected friends.The thief crossed his arms belligerently and stared at the overweight man sitting on a luxuriously padded throne across the small room.” The thief raised a black gloved hand for silence. “Ten thousand gold pieces for a simple retrieval and delivery.” The other man leapt from his chair to stand nose to nose with the lanky thief. you could.” “Get out of my sight. Not for ten thousand. “Yes.” The tall thief gave a small shrug as though the threat didn’t matter. he reminded himself. coward!” 26 . The fat man wearily wiped his pudgy hands over his red face. I’m not throwing my life away for any amount of gold. “I’m telling you I won’t do it. He met the other man’s glower evenly and shook his head. not retreating an inch in the face of the other’s rage. Kill me and you stand to lose the entire guild. “And then you’d very likely have a rebellion on your hands. Guards. He was the most valuable member of the thieves’ guild. the best thief in all of Sereval. and ways of tracking down what happens to go missing. I am well protected. but I’m not about to break into a mage’s tower.
and then present the item to his employer himself. he pulled the velvet tassel that hung beside his throne. Still.As Gregor dipped into a bow that was more than a little mocking and departed. It was true that Gregor was the best thief in Sereval. and quite possibly about more than what would happen if he were removed. this particular thief was a woman. Garadel Jalaar. 27 . Grinning. he’d simply do away with her quietly. but there was another up-and-comer. summoning his messenger. But now The Wraith had refused. when suddenly he froze as an idea occurred to him. Normally the other thieves would be up in arms about such a double cross of one of their own. but in this case. Even better. the vast sum of gold too much for him to resist. No one had ever returned from trying to steal one of the mage’s reputedly priceless artifacts. he knew. the guildmaster had already taken the contract. The orders would be delivered immediately. she’d be dead and he would have rid himself of a nuisance. rubbing his face once again. one who had less to lose and plenty to prove. The fat man sighed. he knew they’d make an exception. Gregor was right. the fat man sank down into his throne once more and pondered his predicament. collecting the offered ten thousand without having to give up the operative’s share. a fact that had more than a few of the otherwise male thieves casting angry looks her way. He had been confident that his best operative could handle the assignment. was by all accounts a formidable fortress warded by powerful spells and guardian creatures. The tower of the city’s resident mage. What did he stand to lose? If the woman failed. An evil grin widened on the guildmaster’s blotchy face. If she managed to succeed.
As her eyes adjusted from the star-lit night to the deeper gloom of the chamber. five-foot frame through the narrow window. Deftly opening the flask one handed. the shutters opened smoothly. floored with simple wooden planks and furnished with little besides a padded chair. hand over hand. and landed with a muffled clink on the crenellated roof of the tower. dead these last several years. The pockets could hold nearly anything. An appreciative smile flitted across her face as her fingers closed around the neck of the oil flask she sought. regardless of which pocket it had originally been placed in. blackened rope behind it. Kat reached into one of the many pockets studding her jerkin. the item sought would be there. then slowly slid the shutters apart. Kat paused to take stock of the room she had just entered. Katrina “Kat” Veldarin started her climb. With a satisfied smile. The room was small and bare. The enchanted jerkin had been a gift from an old friend. and no matter which pocket the wearer reached into.*** The padded grapnel hissed silently through the air. replaced the bottle. Sliding her trim. Shaped like a jeweler’s eyepiece. she began to make out objects around her. so quiet that Kat was confident it went unheard in the tower. Kat reached again into a pocket and withdrew a small object that gleamed in the faint light. Giving the rope a few firm tugs to make sure that it was well anchored. a small portal heavily barricaded by thick wooden shutters. Save for a slight squeak. it 28 . and a large iron banded chest set against the far wall. a dark-colored rug in the center of the floor. Reaching the topmost window. dragging the thin. Kat carefully smeared the viscous liquid on the hinges.
Looking at the space of floor between her and the chest. could easily be rigged with a mechanical snare. placed directly over the shortest route to the chest. Such ill-timed relaxation had cost more than one careless thief his life. Hugging the wall. Though her eyepiece showed no trace of the now-familiar glow. could only detect magical traps and the rug.was cast of gold with a lens of fine crystal. she moved slowly toward her goal. Finally arriving at her destination. The eyepiece had been an expensive purchase. she pursed her lips in surprise and relief. At her blank expression. Kat scanned the room again. forcing Kat to inch along the wall in order to skirt the angrily glowing bands. carefully scanning the area ahead for other traps. Slipping the lens over one of her brilliant green eyes. Kat paused and meticulously searched the chest and surrounding area with the lens. when the target was a mage’s tower. Twice more she skirted areas that shone through the lens and stayed cautiously away from the rug in the room’s center. her contact had sighed and explained the practical upshot: the wearer could “see” magical traps. but a necessary tool for a job such as this. The fence she’d bought it from had assured her that it was capable of detecting the energy fields resulting from static concentrations of magic. she resisted the feeling of infallibility that the contraption bestowed upon her and kept her guard up. its strands pulsing with energy. A web of glowing lines had suddenly appeared inches from the toe of her left boot. rendering them in the visible spectrum. From her training in 29 . thankful that she had been wise enough not to move farther in before donning the eyepiece. Her item. The trap stretched nearly all the way across the floor in front of the window. and she didn’t care to join them. potent though it was.
impossible to force open in such a sensitive place and far too heavy to remove. No hint of magical webbing appeared as she slowly pulled the lid back to expose the item she sought. True. shaking her redmaned head at such foolishness. It was broken too. rather battered looking golden circlet. by the look of it. Finding no trace of tripwires or pressure sensors. reluctant though it had been. she had learned that it was in these final moments. There were four sockets that looked like they had at one time held 30 . It was a monstrous. when it seemed that nothing could go wrong. she removed the eyepiece and looked closely for those of a more mundane nature. Subtlety beat brute force every time. that something usually did. More cautious than ever now. Her smooth brow wrinkling in confusion. but that alone was not enough to warrant the extreme payment that the guildmaster had informed her of. even bending to peer at the underside. In the span of a few minutes the simple locking bar snapped open with a soft click and the thick lid rose slightly. Kat stared for a moment at the unimpressive object. The bottom of the chest was lined with soft velvet. Kat smiled condescendingly. Why bother testing her strength against the chest? Even the greenest of burglars knew that the lock was the weak point of any door or chest.the guild. it was gold. running her fingers gentle around the edge of the lid. upon which lay the artifact: a simple. metal-banded affair that squatted smugly against the stone wall. Seeing no magical traps on the outside of the chest. she turned her attention to the design of the chest itself. Kat placed the lens once more over her eye and studied the lid. silvery lockpicks from yet another pocket and quickly set to work on the lock. Kat pulled a pair of slim.
By the brilliance of its glow through the lens. Another thought rocked Kat back on her heels. sound an alarm.jewels. Quickly snapping back to more immediate concerns. nor try to understand the desires of the guild’s employer. Finally. It was designed to detect traps. Not with so much of her future in the guild riding on her success. The guildmaster had honored her with this assignment. though her frown remained. Kat replaced her picks. She had never turned back from a job before and she wasn’t going to start now. Why would the mage value this plain gold crown so highly as to place it within a heavily barricaded chest surrounded by several magical traps? A simple wall safe would have been sufficient for a mere family heirloom. more senior operatives. and she had to complete it if she desired any standing at all in the guild’s ranks. Just when she thought it was getting easy. this time concentrating on the bottom of the chest. A blazing of light made her curse bitterly to herself. not disarm them. It was not her place to question her orders. 31 . or kill her on the spot. Shrugging. and Kat herself knew nothing of the craft of magic that would allow her to nullify spells. but now gaped empty. Kat gave a daredevil grin and pulled a pair of slim tongs from her pocket. placing the eyepiece in a pocket and tucking her long red hair behind her delicately pointed ears as she considered the situation: the lens had served its purpose and would be of no further help to her now. had chosen her over the other. It might summon magical guardians. The only way to tell was to set it off. Kat gazed through the eyepiece again. this had to happen! She sat back again. but she had no way of knowing what it did. she judged the trap directly under the object to be a powerful one. if that's what this was. with no other real options.
the metal humming faintly as it drew the trap's energy into itself before slowly subsiding until it was just dull metal again. Steadily the tongs crept nearer the item. This meant that the trap was pressure-sensitive. and the serpent-like beam of magical force twisted and writhed as though in frustration as it was drawn away from Kat and into the softly glowing circlet clenched in her fingers. as soon as she removed the item. Kat gave a sudden pull. striking her squarely in the stomach. sitting down sharply and yanking the circlet out of the chest. or perhaps was tied to the presence of the circlet itself. The pain lessened immediately. the room blurring and fading before her tearing eyes. Sitting up. fingers gingerly probing for a wound that wasn't 32 . cursing as the circlet slipped from the tong’s grasp. For several breaths Kat waited for the trap to spring. As Kat landed heavily on the dusty floor. magical trumpets began blaring an alarm throughout the tower and a spear of brilliant white radiance shot out at her from the chest. Kat closed her hand weakly around the item. Kat slid the tongs into the chest. followed seconds later by a wrenching pain that made every muscle in her body spasm uncontrollably. Either way. closer and closer to the circlet.Slowly and carefully. Resisting the impulse to close her eyes. her hands pressed to her belly. Kat’s pretty face maintained its intense look. Reaching out with shuddering fingers. Screaming hoarsely. Far from reassured. until they closed softly but firmly about it. no sense in multiplying her risk. but nothing happened. smooth object. The crown's glow increased. Kat gasped as she felt a paralyzing coldness flood through her. the trap would spring. her twitching fingers groping blindly for release until they brushed against a hard. Kat writhed on the gritty floor.
I’m not here to judge. "It's ok boys. She sighed mentally in relief as her quick eye revealed that the soldiers carried no crossbows. Spinning around. What's the mage paying you for anyway?" At the rumbles of anger answering her question. but carefully following the same path by which she had entered. Fresh alarms began to shriek. wiggling it teasingly. weapons. years of training taking over. torsos. Kat paused. and ran toward the window. As the door crashed open and mail-coated soldiers spilled into the room. "So. Kat leapt to her feet. darting a look over her shoulder. she leaned with exaggerated calm on the wall beside the window and shot a coy look at the slowly advancing men. unharmed by the desperately flashing steel. "I thought you’d never get here. Kat squinted suspiciously at the circlet gripped in her white-knuckled hand. The radiances whipped about wildly. she patted the air dismissively as if calming children. The few that made it past this trap spun around 33 . drowning the soldier's gasps and oaths of surprise as thin tendrils of light whipped up from the floor with the speed of striking vipers. and wrapped themselves around the limbs.there. locking them fast where they stood. Her inspection was broken by the pounding of booted feet on the tower stairs. swords leading. how about trying to catch me? Isn't that what comes next?" The soldiers gave a collective roar of rage at her impudence and charged as a group across the room. even the heads of the struggling men. Kat smiled smugly as the lead man's stomping boots landed squarely on one of the traps she’d avoided. now that you're finally here. unable to see the traps now." Her white teeth gleamed in the faint starlight spilling in through the open window as she grinned roguishly at them and held up the circlet.
” 34 . Once firmly on the ground. won’t you Darion?” The messenger’s frown vanished. each sure that his neighbor was an attacking creature. Kat twisted and grabbed the hanging rope. *** The guildmaster glared in annoyance as his lavish meal was interrupted by his messenger. and though Kat couldn't see what was happening within. to be replaced by a vicious smile.in mid stride to stare in shock at their immobilized companions. and further enhanced the reputation of my guild. swiftly bringing her descent under control and rappelling easily to the starlit street. Kat winked at their bound companions and somersaulted backwards out the window. As the blinded fighters hacked viciously at each other. As she fell. gesturing expansively. A sphere of absolute darkness fell over the frightened soldiers. “It seems our dear Kat has secured the item after all! Her efforts have just earned me a great deal of coin. the wet sounds of steel sliding into flesh and the truly amazing screams that emanated from the enchanted area gave her a pretty good idea. but his fleshy face erupted in a grin as he was told the news. my lord. His voice as he answered came out in a coldly sibilant hiss that chilled even the hardened guildmaster’s blood. she mockingly saluted the tower with the circlet before tucking it securely into a pocket and melting into the shadows. turning back to face her just in time to hit another trap. “Remind me to have her killed rather painlessly. “Well. “Certainly. the guildmaster winked broadly. wouldn’t you agree?” Quick to notice the frown on the messenger’s face.” he remarked to the silently waiting man. She deserves a suitable reward.
beggars. her sixth sense was nagging her that something wasn’t right. keeping watch on the street urchins. This was a double-cross. There were too many eyes watching her. taking care not to appear frightened or in a rush. She was being surrounded. and small-time thugs that infested the alleys at this time of night. that it was a reaction to the adrenalin rush of the mage’s tower and the fear that he was somehow tracking her. Kat quickly turned her eyes forward once more. too many ill-hidden grins on the scruffy faces of beggars lying in doorways. Even as she told herself that she was being paranoid. Her instincts screamed at her that something was amiss. and marked her well as an operative – it paid to be careful. The assassins were doubtlessly 35 . her face set grimly. Though not overly worried – after all most of them were employed frequently in service of the guild. Unconsciously slipping into training mode – and this very scenario had indeed been part of her training – Kat darted a glance skyward.CHAPTER 4 Kat made her way swiftly along the darkened streets. her eyes shifting warily from side to side. she noticed several man-sized shadows following her. Even as she hurried along. several more of the dark shapes ducking away behind ledges on the rooftops as she did so.
lass. Kat tried to think of a way out of the deteriorating situation. Without glancing around. knowing that the pursuing shadows were sweeping in. 36 . dwarven features as he played his end of the game. She was in the poor section of town.waiting for her to get to a place of their choosing before striking. grimy tables and the soot stained walls echoed with the roar of shouted threats. “That enough for a mug of the swill you pass off as ale?” The retired adventurer nodded and set a flagon filled with dark liquid in front of her. The interior of the Dragon’s Den tavern was dim and perpetually filled with smoke from the large fieldstone fireplace dominating the far wall. a place where she would be beyond the sight and help of any who happened to stray by. None of the drinkers took notice of Kat as she threaded her way through the swirling crowd and strode up to the bar. ya cheap slattern!” Kat grinned warmly at her oldest friend as she spun a gold coin across the counter. “Hoy! How about some service. Suddenly she made out the door of a disreputable inn nearby. keeping up her sedate pace and trying not to show her mounting alarm. and any who came to her cries would likely just want a cut of the loot. Not that such a thing was likely in any case. a smile lighting his craggy. she shouted at the innkeep’s broad back. ya shambling broadarse!” Jerhin turned to look at her. “Ha! Ya’ll get nothing till I see the color of yer coin. Patrons gulped watery ale from crude pewter mugs as they jostled each other for space at the small. Pounding the scarred wooden surface with her fist. the slums in fact. “It’ll do. an inn she knew. curses and drunken laughter. Her mind racing. Kat shouldered the door open and crossed the threshold out of the night.
a cup o’ the best.” Jerhin hesitantly raised a thick finger to point toward a dark corner of the room. What I need is to find a fighter powerful enough to defend me and experienced enough not to ask why. nor even order so much as a tankard! I’ve never yet seen him move. talk to no one.” Sipping the bitter liquid. You’ve never yet missed an opportunity to warn me of the dangers of my craft. but he never seems to be there when I close up. and shook his head. Kat. the frown still in place. “I need some help Jerhin. I’m safe. Apparently I’ve stepped on too many feet while making my way. I pulled off a job that I obviously wasn’t supposed to walk away from. I’m fully aware of the possible consequences. “If you’re not making coin off 37 . Kat leaned her elbow on the counter and surveyed the room as she spoke.Here. I tell ya true.” Kat shrugged. Been brooding in that corner of his for nigh on a tenday now. “Enough. “If it be a powerful fighter yer wanting.” Kat flashed her friend an impatient look. “Yeah. The Guildmaster won’t bother pursuing me beyond the walls. “Ach. I told ya that yer thieven ways would catch up ta you. but there’s never been a woman in the guild before either. I don’t like him. appearing as though she were merely making small talk.” Jerhin nodded at the logic. Don’t meet no one. Apparently the guildmaster has decided that I’m no longer worth the trouble. You’d best be getting out o’ that business lass. and now I’m being hunted. a frown deepening the lines on his rough face. Once out of the city.” Jerhin looked at her sharply. thank you. that one’s yer man. “A double-cross? Within the guild itself? I’ve never heared o’ such a thing before!” Kat smiled with no trace of humor and gestured to herself. glancing casually around toward the corner indicated.
in all the years she’d known him. “I let him stay because I’m afraid to tell him to leave. Still. Violence and death follow that one like a thunderhead – I’ve been in battles enough to sense it. He’s as soulless as a golem and just as dangerous. though not near as many as he’s seen I’d wager. Setting her jaw stubbornly. let alone a single man. and two cold eyes staring right back at her. Kat stepped away from the bar.” she gestured expansively around the crowded room.him. She’d never. I read it in his eyes. but a hand on her shoulder as hard and rough as a stone block brought her defiant advance to a sudden halt. once again meeting those eyes that never seemed to blink or look away. his drooping mustache blowing out from his lips. Kat slowly turned her gaze back on the shadowy figure. I just know. Drop him quick and make sure you can’t be followed when you do. so be it.” Kat nodded. listen to what I say. leaning over the counter with a pleading expression on his craggy face. she was able to make out a man’s silhouette. If you’re determined that you need him. “I believe you.” He held up his hands to deflect Kat’s coming question. Frowning. “I know you’re nay going to listen to me girl. why let him stay?” As her eyes adjusted from the glare of the firelight to the shadowed corner. Don’t place your trust in him. And yet. Just use him and be done. my friend. Your instincts have yet to lead wrong. a startled look on her pretty face.” Kat turned abruptly back to face him. known the proud and battle-hardened fighter admit to being afraid of anything. for I cannot tell ye. those terrible eyes of his. He’s a killer Kat. Jerhin sighed gustily. She looked back at Jerhin. “not one of these bravos is anything more than brag and 38 . “Don’t ask me how I know. Gods know I’m aware that the more anyone tells you not to do something the faster you run to do it. as precise and merciless as a crossbow.
never mind a dozen trained assassins dropping from rooftops and throwing daggers.bluster. conceding the point. driving him to his knees on the cold floor as a glacial voice emanated from the crystal. And I’m not exactly defenseless myself. it will be YOUR soul that sustains me for 39 . he’s the only choice. “Aye. “I care nothing for your excuses. girlie.” The mage’s words were choked off as an unseen force gripped him around the throat. and if he so much as looks at ye sideways. there was no way he’d reach her side in time. you just let me know and I’ll send him to the hellfires in pieces. *** Alone in the topmost tower chamber. polished stone that rested on a slim pedestal. enough to make even you think twice. In a street fight they’d be hard pressed to match me alone. Garadel Jalaar stood facing a clear. chewing on his thick lip distractedly. If not.” Jerhin stood. A thief…. “Agreed. his faded blue eyes never leaving Kat’s back as the slim thief glided through the milling crowd toward the still motionless and watching stranger. you’re right there. If that one’s as dangerous as you think. These swaggerblades’d not last more than a breath or three against the likes of the Guild. then turned away. “Go then. He was fully and painfully aware that if trouble broke out. I…I lost the item. either. crazy golem-warrior or no!” Kat smiled warmly at him.” The dwarf nodded reluctantly.” His face hardened. “Master. mortal! I care not if you stood alone against an army! Plans have been set in motion and I will not allow your failing jeopardize my design! You WILL retrieve the circlet and deliver it to me within one week.
high-pitched voice that set Garadel’s teeth on edge.” The glowing stone abruptly went dark. was that the summoner would run out of strength before he banished the creature back to the Abyss. set up the strangely carved golden brazier. Garadel gathered the necessary components. and began the spell. Garadel tossed a small handful of powder into the fire and bent his will upon the suddenly multi-hued flames. He must begin immediately: Kalkamar would abide no delays. and Garadel pulled himself to his feet. his voice a hoarse rasp. “What do you require of me.the next century. trying to force the imp to serve him. staring at him with blazing eyes. Gritting his teeth. Such a failure would allow the demon the freedom to do anything it chose: including killing the mage who dared summon 40 . Finally. Garadel collapsed on the floor. the minor demon bowed its head and broke the telepathic connection. “Yes master…. the brazier roared with flame and. he strove against the mental push to submit and fought back. feeling the alien touch of its mind within his own. It spoke in a screechy. Garadel turned and locked gazes with the creature. and knew that his energy would continue to be sapped as long as he held the imp in bondage. He was no apprentice: he had summoned such beings many times before. At a word. Am I understood?” As the force released him. mage-mostmighty?” Garadel smiled despite the continued mental drain of holding the beast under his influence. scaled imp stepped from the fire. no matter how minor a fiend. The danger inherent in demon summoning. Composing himself as best he could. Minutes later a small. chanting in an arcane tongue. spread its bat-like wings and flew from the brazier to the arm of Garadel’s chair where it perched. nodding weakly.
it. The greater the demon, the larger the strain and the more risk, which was why Garadel was careful to summon only minor creatures that he could control fairly easily. Even a relatively weak demon such as this imp should prove more than a match for such a simple task of tracking and killing a thief. “I want you to locate a thief; a woman who broke into my tower and stole an artifact of significance.” Garadel held up the rope that his guards had retrieved from outside his tower. A sneer curled Garadel's thin lips. The rope that they had retrieved after he had released them from the magical traps they had stumbled into, the useless buffoons. He would have to remember to deal with the issue of their failure after he set this demon on its errand. “Sense her from this and search her out. I want that item back!” He shrugged his narrow shoulders dismissively. “What you do with her is of no concern. All that matters is the artifact. You have two days to retrieve it.” Holding the offered rope tightly in its taloned hands, the imp closed its bulbous eyes and sighed with satisfaction. “Oooo, a fine soul is this. Mmmm… so delicious and pure it is.” Suddenly its eyes snapped open again and it gave a vicious smile. “Know where she is, I do now. Your item you shall have, master.” With a small popping noise the imp disappeared, leaving Garadel alone once more in his tower room. The mage chuckled to himself and rubbed his bony hands together in anticipation. Soon…soon…. *** Kat studied her target carefully as she approached, seeking to learn something of him; knowledge that could prove useful if he was as dangerous as Jerhin claimed.
He was a tall man, perhaps six feet when standing, with the powerful build and wide shoulders of a professional fighter, though his face was quite thin. His shockingly pale skin contrasted sharply with the thick black hair that spilled down his back. The flames of the fireplace reflected in his eyes, causing them to shine eerily in the gloom. When he glanced toward Kat, small flames seemed to remain, burning deep within the pupils. He was obviously more than a simple mercenary: the glossy black plate armor he wore looked like it had cost more gold than she had ever seen, archaic though the style was. It gleamed in the sullen light, the long spikes that curved upward from the thick shoulder plates casting flickering shadows on the wall behind him. When he moved, she saw that smaller versions of those talons also adorned his knee and elbow cops. No helm rested near him, though it seemed odd that one so carefully armored would leave his head vulnerable. His breastplate was featureless except for the emblem of a crimson, half risen sun. Kat didn't recognize the crest, but wasn't surprised by her ignorance. After all, she hadn't made any kind of effort to memorize all the different knightly sigils. Close at hand, a gigantic two-handed sword with a strangely curved black blade engraved with red runes leaned against the table. Oddly, though the glow of the fire gleamed on the fighter’s armor and fitfully illuminated the surrounding area, the sword remained surrounded by an aura of darkness. It was as if the black steel drank in the light. As she studied the sword, Kat sensed an awareness emanating from the weapon - a feeling that it was watching her and noting her movements. It was a distinctly uncomfortable sensation, and Kat tried to stay as far as possible from the sinister weapon as she walked up to the man.
Striding up to the imposing figure, Kat felt the weight of his gaze. Her skin crawled under his stare, and she felt a sudden chill: a desire to flee back to the streets and take her chances alone. Firming her jaw, Kat halted before the warrior and placed her hands on her hips, meeting his cold eyes evenly. One dark eyebrow rose slightly at this, and a small, heatless smile curved his thin lips. Still he remained silent, seeming content to wait until she spoke. Feeling uncomfortable pinned like an insect under his stare, Kat’s voice came out louder than she had intended, echoing in the suddenly silent inn. “I hear you’re a decent fighter.” Drinkers seated at the tables nearest to Kat shifted, trying to get close enough to hear the conversation without appearing to do so. Ignoring the listeners, the warrior spoke, his arctic eyes never wavering from Kat’s. “I am the best.” Kat sneered, trying to regain a measure of control over this odd encounter. “Of course you are. You and every other sword-swinger I’ve ever talked to. Still, you look as though you may have some skill, so I’m going to make you an offer. I want to hire you as my bodyguard for awhile. Think you can handle that?” The fighter leaned back in his seat, the wooden chair groaning alarmingly in protest under his armored weight, and crossed his arms over his chest. Though he appeared totally relaxed, there was an aura of menace about him, a sense that he could snap like a coiled viper at any moment. His expression taking on a contemptuous cast, the warrior’s voice dripped disinterest. “For what reason would I assist you, child?” Her ready temper boiling over, Kat snatched out her purse and poured a stream of coins out onto the table. The clatter of gold echoed in the silence as the drinkers crowded around to gape at the pile of coins
the surrounding iris starting to glow. glanced calmly around at the crowd. Even now she could see him. Looking around at the circle of dirty. that expanding pupil blotting out the whole world until all was darkness. and had separated her from Jerhin. probably gripping the wellworn haft of his old battle-axe in readiness. Kat silently berated herself for making so foolish and dangerous a mistake. one hand under the counter. trying to appear confident and bluff her way out. As his gaze once again met hers. unable to tear her stare away. and Kat found herself inexplicably fascinated by his eyes. who alone hadn’t leaned forward for a better look at the spilled coins. If there was trouble. their wariness of the dark fighter momentarily eclipsed by greed. desperately hoping that no one had noticed the sweat starting to bead on her brow. And she was all that stood between them and this treasure. desperate men and women who likely hadn’t seen so much wealth ever in one place. hungry faces. before turning his attention once more to Kat. His pupils seemed to be widening impossibly. She had just shown money. a lot of money. The mob had cut off her retreat to both the inn’s main door and the secret exit behind the counter. Kat felt as though she were falling into the void of his eyes. Suddenly there was a swell of warmth from 44 . Kat sneered confidently around at the sullen crowd. but she doubted that even the berserk battle fury of her old friend could save her if the mob decided to attack. to a crowd of starving. noting the furtive glances and grimy fingers thoughtfully stroking the pommels of daggers.that gleamed on the table's scarred surface. Kat knew that the former adventurer would spring to her aid. laying waste to whomever stood in his way. The dark fighter.
a display of strength that drew muted gasps of astonishment from the now uncertain crowd – and dropped a slight bow to Kat. Kat’s vision cleared and she found herself once again standing in the familiar clutter of the Dragon’s Den facing the dark fighter. Blinking in confusion. Seeming to come to a decision. face as calm as though he were still seated at his table. the warrior rose to his feet. a brief feeling of tension.” Too distracted by her confusion and the growing restlessness of the mob to wonder at his sudden generosity. clutching the bloody 45 . Kat simply nodded brusquely and scooped the coins back into her purse. along with the hand that had held it. but with a deadly gleam deep in his eyes. The man turned and ran. The warrior stood facing his would-be attacker squarely. Kat noticed that even though the fighter seemed contemptuously unconcerned by the thinly veiled threat in the air. I will accompany you for as long as you require. the aura of awareness around his weapon had grown stronger. she followed the warrior as he swept toward the door. On Kat’s right. “Keep your gold Mistress. and the world came rushing back. dropped to the floor. as though she were being stretched. there was a blur of dark steel and the man stumbled back with an agonized scream as his knife. the black blade weaving slightly back and forth like a watchful serpent. lifted his gigantic sword easily in one hand . a thin man with a rodent-like face slid a long dirk from his sleeve and advanced towards the fighter’s back. the more recalcitrant ones persuaded by the sight of the huge sword clasped in the fighter’s armored hand. The crowd parted reluctantly. who wore a look of mild surprise and sudden interest. Slipping the pouch into a pocket of her jerkin.within her. Before Kat could even draw breath to call a warning.
all the while keeping her own eyes alert and moving. Kat stared at her new companion with wonder and not a little fear. Far from putting her at ease. He was so fast! She hadn’t even seen him start to move. In the suddenly much less crowded inn. she knew. Jerhin’s warning echoing in her head. His strength would have to be tested. nothing would save her from the guild’s blades. Kat slowly followed the dark warrior out into the night. Trying to distract herself from the mounting feeling of danger. seemingly oblivious to everything and the next he had maimed an attacker he shouldn’t have even been able to see coming. before the guild would move at her in full.. There was no blood on the black steel. Kat looked swiftly about for the assassins she knew were close. “So. They would gage his ability and decide how much of a threat he posed before they would risk their most valuable members. Even now she was doubtlessly under surveillance. Once outside. One moment he was striding calmly for the door. Her gaze fell to his sword. and if the warrior fell or was even seriously hurt. and the rest of the crowd was abruptly intent on pressing matters elsewhere. and several times he suddenly snapped his head around to peer intently into the shadowclotted alleys as they passed. the feeling of dread grew.if we’re going to be traveling together. The first trial strike would come soon. but saw nothing.stump of his right hand.. Her stomach twisting with misgivings. the only thing holding back the knife was the uncertainty about her sudden companion. and her eyes widened. it might be helpful to know your name. Even her strange companion seemed to notice something amiss: gone was the air of unconcerned confidence.” Without ceasing his continual scan of the night 46 . Kat attempted to engage her silent companion in conversation.
The assassins came at them in a rush. the dark warrior’s huge blade spinning with liquid grace and undeniable skill to weave a cocoon of razor sharp steel around her. the other attackers were furiously engaged. One disappeared immediately. trying to comprehend what was happening. blades glinting in their hands. Even as she stood there blinking. It was nearing midnight. off to inform the guildmaster of their devastating defeat.around them. and the cobbled streets seemed all but deserted. “I am Erebus. only three of the attackers remained standing. those that had hesitated and thus managed to avoid the deadly whirlwind. the fighter spoke. Suddenly. Kat grabbed for the hilt of her shortsword. cursing herself for being taken off guard. blades leading. Kat knew. desperately trying to get it in position to parry the first thrust of the man in front of her. a dozen blackclad forms rushing in from surrounding alleys and dropping down from rooftops. 47 . sent spinning off into the darkness as fast as he’d come by a powerful punch from Erebus’s steel plated fist. that attacker was gone. and fell just as swiftly. and Kat soon stopped trying. save for a ragged beggar or two who scuttled back into the shadows at the forbidding figure of Erebus. In a matter of moments.” Further questions proved fruitless. The town gates came into view in the distance and Kat dared to hope that they would make it out of the city without incident. spinning to the ground choking in their own blood as that whirling sword deftly took throats. Silently they charged. only their eager eyes visible above the cloth wrapping their faces. limbs and heads without pausing in its warding dance. and slid the weapon free of its scabbard. The attack came without warning.
counting on his opponent’s distraction to secure a swift victory. and the two approached warily. Erebus caught the flying dagger on the flat of his blade. the thieves and killers who had become good enough on their own to garner the attention and interest of the guild. began waving his sword about. Too late. This was their bloodening. fancying himself a great fighter. these weren’t true guild assassins. The broader and better muscled of the two. Kat saw his eyes dart to his companion for just a moment. caught the gleam of a dagger in the other man’s hand. his balance as sure as any dancer. and opened her mouth to call a warning to Erebus. Erebus had finished his spin. Apparently. greed and desperation won out against common sense. It wasn’t 48 . and were willing to do whatever it took to secure that chance. trying with sheer desperation to prevent Erebus’ blade from getting through. spinning the long blade through a short series of skillful cuts and thrusts. and was face to face with the other attacker as the man thundered helplessly in. The remaining two stood irresolute for a moment. sending it wobbling off to skitter and spark on the hard cobbled street. the test to see if they were worth that attention. Twirling on one foot. separating to come at Erebus from different angles. his momentum too great to stop or change direction. The dagger spun through the air at the same moment that the fighter barreled in.As she’d thought. Even as the knife thrower’s face blanched in horror at the ease of the block. the man flailed wildly with his sword. obviously weighing the danger of attacking the lethal fighter against the rewards and recognition of being the ones to bring Kat’s head to the guildmaster. but they were eager for their chance to escape the harsh streets. they were the hopefuls. Cursing. They weren’t as skillful as those in the guild proper.
and turned to face her wide eyed stare. *** As Erebus and Kat turned down a side street. his face as stony and expressionless as it had been in the tavern. Then he simply shrugged. As the twitching corpse dropped to the street. Kat caught sight of an odd creature fluttering before them on a pair of leathery wings. Erebus spoke without taking his gaze from the creature. staring at his armored back with a mixture of bafflement and fear. With a sickening tearing sound. and the sword in his hand rose like an aroused snake to hover in front of his chest. lifting the still squirming man into the air on his blade with strength Kat had never imaged he could possess. Made some 49 . Distant cries for help reverberating off the walls told of the man’s terrified flight. Erebus turned calmly toward the other man…who was no longer there.enough. his voice as cool as though they were discussing the weather. Peering around his shoulder. “Shall we continue. Erebus impaled him through the chest. Erebus suddenly stopped short. Kat finally shrugged helplessly and nodded. His powerful sword smashing aside the man’s pitiful attempt at a defense. "An imp. the keen edge tore through the would-be assassin’s rib cage. before twisting the steel and whipping his arm to the side. and for a moment. Mistress?” Sputtering around the many incomplete responses whirling in her head. it seemed to Kat that Erebus was about to pursue. nearly cutting him in half. the last step on their journey to the gates. dropping into step behind her protector as he moved on down the street.
As the minor demon flew past him. the imp had a stocky. ‘Lord Slayer’. and so sure are you that safe from his hunger you are?” Erebus paid no attention to either the accusations of the imp or Kat’s horrified stare as he moved steadily forward with the grace of an accomplished predator. About two feet tall from clawed feet to misshapen head. The two bat-like wings that sprang from its hunched shoulders were at least as long as its body. the imp squealed with laughter. Erebus was faster. “I believe this is your department. have you?" Kat studied the bizarre creature with more curiosity than fear. Swift as the imp was. Erebus nodded and smoothly advanced on the creature. barrellike torso armored with small. a powerful one for your cause you have gained. “Know you that walk beside a corpse you do?” At Kat’s stunned expression. “Hee hee! Knew you not! A predator of the night is your companion! A vampire is this one. the imp yelped and darted to the side. burying itself repeatedly in Erebus’ 50 . light green scales.enemies within the lower planes. screechy voice. the imp gave a cackling laugh and turned luminous eyes on Kat. “Ahh. Again and again the stinger found its mark. which regarded him through narrowed eyes before addressing Kat in a high. Shrieking with rage.” It suddenly shot Kat a sly look. and from its haunches a whip-like tail ending in a scorpion-like stinger swished from side to side in readiness. who in turn glanced at her companion. Suddenly noticing how very close the fighter had gotten. the fighter's steel gloved hand shot out and caught it around the throat. is he. A being of shadows and murder.” Not responding to her halfhearted barb. skimming the wall as it tried to fly around him and reach Kat. Seeing that it had been spotted. the imp lashed out at its captor with its venomous tail. Dangerous.
pale cheek. Erebus bent and lifted Kat’s spasming body easily in his powerful arms. choking imp locked in his fist. She sounded like a scared little girl. causing her to shiver and snapping her out of her paralysis. twitching and screaming in the grasp of the abyssal poison. Swiftly. Mistress?” His deadly calm voice washed over Kat like an ice-filled river. convulsive movement. “I…I suppose…k…kill it…. the black sword wavered and faded from sight as the fighter turned. As Kat dropped to the ground. The laughter ended abruptly as Erebus smashed his hand closed. With a sudden. not a skilled. “What is to be this creature’s fate. Snarling hoarsely. crushing the imp’s body into an unrecognizable pulp before dropping it unceremoniously on the cobbled street. the imp began laughing delightedly. competent thief! Her pronouncement had a different effect on the imp. Erebus slashed out with his sword and severed the tail. his huge sword hovering in the air beside him as he released it. emotionless part of her mind raged at the quaver in her voice. Erebus didn’t relax his crushing grip as he turned to Kat who stood frozen.” A detached. Reacting instantly. the long tail snapped out at Kat’s face. She stared at Erebus and the wriggling. still in shock from the imp’s terrifying claims. but not before the deadly stinger drove itself deeply into the side of Kat’s neck. At his mental command. it ceased its futile flailing at Erebus and directed its attack at a new target. Unbothered by the lethal venom. 51 . bright green blood spraying from between his fingers. and ran with incredible speed back toward the Dragon’s Den. cradling Kat’s shuddering body close against his armored chest.
patches of seared skin showing through missing fur. The feline warrior’s lean body was scorched and burned. His tufted ears still rang with the hellish sounds of collapsing trees. and the silence. coating him with a dirty film. the 52 .CHAPTER 5 Sabre stumbled through the smoke filled forest. his bare feet plowing furrows through heaps of ash that swirled around his body as he disturbed it. the agonized screams of the dying.
Sabre tripped and sprawled on the ground. As he slept. Without a word. fearing that he had contacted some new and diabolic plague. No one noticed. in vivid detail. even the skin around the sockets had been blistered and blackened by the heat radiating from those corrupted orbs. This lone goblin acted so unusually that for several seconds the surrounding fighters just stared. Sabre’s mind replayed the ghastly memory of the destruction of his tribe. Before anyone could even comprehend what had happened. He saw again. until he raised his right hand. but they also weren’t liked. The diminutive creatures were cruel. He surrendered to the engulfing blackness and was swept away. no longer aware enough of his surroundings to notice that it wasn’t covered in ash. sadistic cowards whose greatest joy was to visit fiendish tortures on helpless victims. Goblins weren’t feared by the skilled fighters. and the warrior was engulfed in flames. Their gazes met. his whole body gave off such a level of heat that the grass around his feet began to smolder. one of the males drew his twin swords and challenged the intruder. and the warrior recoiled in horror. the creature pointed the stone at the fighter who had challenged him. The stone flashed with a brilliant radiance.awful silence of the being responsible for the carnage. never even venturing out of their lair unless in a sizable group. Before long. however. The goblin had no eyes! In their place were holes that emitted a flickering red light. Everyone in the village drew back from this frightful specter. the goblin swung 53 . Indeed. the beautiful and unearthly gem glowing softly in his grip. the goblin step out from the concealing embrace of the trees and walk calmly into the center of the village. however. They were also skittish.
He was a coward. Sabre once again met his father’s eyes. too petrified by fear to move. saw his mouth form one word even as his body disintegrated under the infernal heat: “Run. and he dreamt no more. the images proved too painful even for his subconscious to handle.the stone in a wide arc. the warrior began to plow his way through the startled crowd.” Sabre had. and then he had walked. standing in shock. desperate to prevent the death of his youngest sibling. No longer 54 . the sister too young to walk. weapons flashing and twirling about their bodies. His brain burned with self-hatred and reproach. He saw his family: his father. He should have died with his family. The dwarf’s eyes widened as he saw the fighter's black armored bulk fill the doorway. He had run until he could run no longer. a fire every bit as hot and destructive as that wielded by the demonic goblin. Before the dwarf could move. mother and brothers throw themselves at this harbinger of annihilation. crashing into the wall with enough force to make the whole building shudder. Finally. *** Jerhin spun around in surprise when the inn's heavy door slammed open. with Kat’s jerking body draped over his steel-plated arms. Another wave of darkness overtook him. And Sabre saw himself. should have thrown his life away with them. He saw them fail: heard his sister screaming as she melted in a blast of hell-fire. bringing a mighty wave of flame that washed over everything in its path. to be immolated even in midair. Sabre saw both male and female warriors leaping heroically at the goblin. In his mind's gaze.
Only at the gate of the temple did Erebus slow his relentless pace. Swift on his heel came Erebus.paying the slightest attention to obstructions. the odd pair rushed toward the dim outline of the temple of Lystra in the distance. Turning back to Jerhin. Jerhin raised his ancient battle-axe from under the counter. slamming the oaken tables aside. and sending patrons too slow to get out of his way sprawling. Erebus turned and laid Kat with surprising tenderness on the worn counter. Out in the starlit street. It is her only hope. and I cannot enter consecrated grounds. Go. but after a glimpse of the huge blade in Erebus’ fist and the murder smoldering in his brightly glowing eyes. now!” There was a force behind the words. an expression of pain twisting his normally impassive face. he charged straight toward the bar. though Jerhin didn’t remember seeing the weapon when the fighter had entered. 55 . who stood holding his axe uncertainly. a mental push that sent Jerhin’s axe dropping forgotten to the floor as he heaved the now motionless woman into his arms and ran for the door as fast as his short legs could carry him. “She has been injected with a demonic poison. Take her to a temple: to a priest. tears of rage and pain in his eyes. they fell swiftly back into the darkness. he pinned the dwarf with his crimson gaze and spoke rapidly and firmly. a gang of muggers stepped forth to bar their way. His steps faltered and finally he sank down on the street. the spikes on his knees grating and sparking against the cold cobbles. sword in hand. “Monster! I’ll have yer head fer what ye’ve done ta me girl!” Without any pause or acknowledgement of the dwarf’s threat. shattering drinkware beneath his ironshod boots. As they ran past an alley.
swirling around his body like water and wrapping about him. Flipping off the bed and falling into a fighting stance. “Go!” Jerhin turned and looked back once at the huddled figure before continuing his run for the temple. Bring her inside and find a priest to heal her!” With the last of his fading strength. reaching instinctively for a sword 56 . Sitting up. “Go! I can proceed no farther. Erebus reached out and shoved Jerhin forward. *** Kat slowly opened her eyes. the shadows stretched. As Jerhin disappeared through the temple doors. Suddenly she was aware that another had entered the room. the street was empty. they were of the highest quality. he stared with narrowed eyes defiantly at the temple before reaching mentally out to the darkness. She was in a small. Bright sunlight streamed in through a narrow window flanked by deep blue curtains and shone on the white-painted walls. Spare though the furnishings were. who stood uncertainly beside him. Erebus slowly and painfully pulled himself to his feet. and from long habit Kat found herself mentally pricing each item. Responding to his silent commands. When they broke apart a breath later. lying on a comfortable bed. The room was furnished with the bed Kat found herself occupying. a small chest and a single chair. groaning as the glare of the sun stabbed into her aching head. she looked around in surprise and confusion. Squaring his wide shoulders with obvious effort. hiding him from sight. sparsely appointed room.He looked up at Jerhin. and snarled at him through clenched teeth. sending him stumbling through the gates.
prayer-chanting pipsqueak! I’ve been waiten as long as I’m gonna! I’m going ta see me girl!” The door abruptly slammed open and in rushed Jerhin. “You can’t go in yet. Of course. the old man shook his head ruefully. “It is as I'd hoped. Kat spun to face her opponent. and then another. as though a block of ice inside her had melted. followed closely by a rather put-out looking priest in a tousled robe.” Before the priest could say more. high priest of Lystra.” Seeing her confusion. “I’m sorry. sometimes I amaze myself with my forgetfulness. As Kat ran to greet her friend. Her stance relaxed when she saw that the intruder was an old man dressed in a long white robe trimmed in deep blue.” There was the sound of a short scuffle. smiling slightly as 57 . Nodding in satisfaction. master. dress-wearing. the old man stepped back. The poison has been completely neutralized. Smiling reassuringly at her. “You will be informed when the patient is fit enough for visitors….” said a rather frantic voice. goddess of mercy. he reached out and placed two fingers gently on Kat’s forehead. and have no recollection of the events that brought you here. “Blast ye back to the Hell that spawned ye. At once she felt a soothing glow. “The burden of age. “I’m sorry. It was a hardfought battle. but your will proved strong enough to keep you with us while our magic did its work. the priest scurried over to Ordan. you were unconscious during your ordeal. there was a commotion outside the room. and I had feared that you had been brought to us too late despite your bearer’s hurry.” He tapped his temple and grinned wryly. I am Ordan. ya bottlestoppen. This barbarian simply won’t follow proper procedure!” Ordan raised a calming hand. rougher voice came clearly to their ears.that was no longer there.
truth be told. rather than the simple joy of helping another – Ordan cleared his throat and addressed the reunited friends. a miffed look on his doughy face. I’m used to it. it’s the dark fighter who be due most of the credit. leaving them alone. the healing was. Speaking o' which. relieved to see that her sword and dagger had been neatly laid on a small table just outside her room.” Not waiting for her reply. I have other patients to look after. “Ahem. Our business is concluded. my friend. where be the lad?" 58 .he watched the dwarf catch the woman up in a giant bear hug. he turned and shook a scolding finger at Kat. Though.” Dormal spared a brief glance at the scene. Kat made her way to the entrance of the temple. winking to show he spoke in jest. and with Jerhin bobbing happily by her side. Dormal. Shaking his head at his assistant’s antics – that one seemed to think the business of temples was all stuffy protocol and ritual. I was about to announce her recovery anyway. Dropping a small handful of silver into the wooden collection box before stepping through the doors.” Going to the door. tears running down his craggy cheeks. he disappeared through the door. of course. before turning about in a huff and stomping away down the hall. Now if you’ll excuse me. After gathering her equipment. will you? It was really quite taxing on my skills. lass. “Thank you for saving me. Kat narrowed her eyes against the sudden glare of the bright sunlight and glanced at Jerhin. “Do try not to get attacked by any more subplanar creatures.” The burly dwarf grinned up at her. and I just don’t think I’m up to another. “It’s all right. “It’s not like it’s the first time. free though anything you’d care to place in the collection box would be greatly appreciated.
Jerhin gave another grin and shuffled farther from the temple doors. not save them." Jerhin clapped a weighty hand on Kat's shoulder. Kat stared at him in surprise for several seconds before trying one more time. but what if he's not to be trusted? How do I kill a foe that's already dead?" In response. I suspected the lad’s nature when I noticed his reaction to the temple. he worked hard to save ye.Kat squinted up at the bright sun glaring down and shook her head grimly." At her friend's questioning look. and if there's one thing I learned." Not sure what to make of her normally hardheaded friend's apparently casual acceptance of Erebus' nature. "I've a feeling that we won't be seeing him out in the daylight. Jerhin stroked his rough beard thoughtfully with one thick hand. "Besides girlie. especially if yon mage’ll be setting more fiends on yer trail. barking laugh. "Given the monster that I've just spent the night wandering the streets with. and ye'd have been troubling the sleep of wealthy merchants no longer. and he mentioned that he wasn’t fer liking holy things. All he had to do was walk away. it's that appearances can be deceiving. "Ya know lass. I'm inclined to agree with you. Lowering his voice to a rough whisper. I be not ready to call him a monster just yet. aye? Instead. there'd be none better to protect ye." Jerhin held up a reproving finger and shook his head. I've been around fer awhile." Kat gave a short. she told him of the encounter with the imp and the revelations about her companion. "Monster. Nay. a vampire can be no mean ally! If he can be trusted. "So I helped meself to a bottle or 59 ." He winked at her. he held out a small flask. "Yeah. lass? It be my experience that monsters end lives. "Truth be told.
"Not to worry. Once the thick oaken door was securely bolted. vile thief!" Chuckling deep in his barrel torso. looks like a bit of me is rubbing off on you. Garadel knew that the imp had been either killed or banished back to the Abyss by another mage. me girl. lass.” he whispered. With a feeling of total helplessness.three of consecrated water while I was waiting fer ye to recover. "I could do worse. Kat took the offered bottles and secured them in a pocket of her jerkin. Garadel leapt up from his chair and rushed back into his summoning chamber. a dangerous grin on her face and one hand patting the scabbard of the shortsword re-belted around her waist." Smiling in spite of herself. and I'm betting it'll stop old fang-face in his tracks. Katrina trotted off and disappeared down an alley. Kat glanced over her shoulder at her long-time friend. Cursing. *** Deep within his energy gathering meditation. "I'm not exactly defenseless!" Waving a cheerful farewell to her friend. belying the confidence he had shown for her benefit. “Be safe. Garadel thinks I'm dead for sure. striving to make contact with his diabolic servant. Jerhin squeezed Kat's arm affectionately. my friend? Though you'd better watch out. Jerhin watched her vanish. Yon priests'll never miss it." she added. Now. get ye out o' town before the guild or mage cooks some other surprise for ye!" Starting away down the street. he turned to 60 . and once I'm out of the city he'll never find me! Plus. "What would I do without you. From the silence on the other end. Garadel felt the severing of his link with the imp. if'n he tries something. The mage shouted into the darkness of his mind.
The mage shook as he struggled to hold the magic in check.face the room. Garadel chanted the last few words with undignified haste. Garadel felt a cold twinge of fear. he had no choice. the creatures stepped out of the extraplanar tunnel that shrank behind them. Against the blackness of the room. Looking up at the impassive greathelms. Far down that hellish passageway. His entire body shaking violently with the effort of containing the magic. It was the most powerful Call he knew: one that had been taught to him by his master Kalkamar. As the final hissing syllable escaped his lips. Garadel gave a weak laugh. though they approached the wizard more quickly than any mortal could move. The imp had failed. he began the spell. a slowly spiraling blood-hued tunnel appeared. In a matter of moments. Still. still exhausted from the effort of casting the spell. striding toward Garadel. Raising his arms. the wide. despite the danger. it would rip him apart. He knew that if his mental strength proved too little to keep the power under control until the final words were said. two humanoid shapes appeared. the chamber darkened. No mortal had ever seen the face concealed behind that emotionless steel. The Knights were armored from head to toe in black plate armor of an ancient style: armor that 61 . straining for release. the power of the spell creating a bridge to a plane that knew no light. and stood waiting for his instructions. The veins stood out on Garadel’s forehead and his muscles trembled as the energy built. and that could only mean that the thief had acquired assistance: powerful assistance. crimson sleeves of his robe sliding back from his hands. The two Shadow Knights stood and stared silently down at their summoner from their sevenfoot height.
loyal to the lich above all.” the lich had said. trying desperately to sound commanding and horribly aware that he wasn't succeeding. Now. these were Kalkamar’s personal guard. but at what price? Would his service to Kalkamar destroy his very humanity? He was sending these…abominations after another human. and a woman at that! Everything decent in the mage recoiled at the thought. Garadel wondered if he had gone too far. They tolerated a mortal commanding them only so long as he worked Kalkamar’s wishes. Finally they bowed and turned to 62 .didn’t reflect the light. laughing: a horrible. Garadel raised a trembling hand and addressed the once again motionless figures. They would not hesitate to kill him the instant he so much as thought about betraying their master. Kalkamar had taught Garadel this spell as a last resort. Go!” The two Shadow Knights studied him for a few moments more. Garadel had met his master in person only once: the time when he was instructed in the use of this spell. As though sensing his hesitation. and Garadel felt the sweat begin to run down his sides. Kill her and any companions. desiccated sound filled with ageless cruelty. He had. “When the job must be done. and Garadel quickly erased any thoughts of mercy or guilt from his mind. and still did. “Seek out the woman who stole the circlet and return the crown to me. facing the motionless Knights. It was her life or his own now. the Knights raised their halberds. lust after the power the mighty lich possessed. the twin blades moving as one. They carried lethal looking halberds with wickedly hooked blades of the same substance as their armor. and that seemed to move and swirl as if it were formed of some sinister liquid rather than steel. The mage shuddered as he recalled the lich’s hissing voice and the weight of his inhuman gaze.
Darion eyed the mangled goblet. News that his master hadn’t taken well. Striding into it. the reverberations of its collision still hanging faintly in the perfumed air.” CHAPTER 6 The ornate silver goblet nearly took Darion’s nose from his face as it soared across the room in front of him to smash resoundingly against the wall. then turned to regard the cursing. “I’ll see her hanging from my trophy wall by her tongue. The tunnel collapsed in on itself and vanished. He had been ranting for nearly half an hour 63 . sure that the guildmaster was too caught up in his fury to notice. so the next excruciating torture I perform will be even more memorable in its surprise!” Darion allowed himself a small wince. leaving the thoroughly shaken mage alone in his tower room muttering to himself. red-faced guildmaster. her eyes put out and ears cut off. after slaughtering nearly a dozen capable assassins first. spilling its fine wine like blood. they rapidly shrank into the distance until they could be seen no more. He had just delivered the tale Kat’s escape.face the planar tunnel that had once more opened. “It’s her or me. Calm and collected as ever. It’s her or me.
not just the best we have. reading clearly the question printed there. Perhaps they’d been too quick to dismiss this one’s skills on account of her gender. I don’t care if he’s a member of this guild or not. boring into his own. She was obviously very good to first steal from the supposedly impenetrable tower. Suddenly. I want the best there is. or what his price is. those small eyes. 64 . but accomplishing nothing of use. Once he had. he snapped back to attention. bending low to place his ear nearly beside his master’s mouth. With that uncomfortable thought in mind. hard and gleaming as two pieces of polished jet. and then to spot and escape from an unsuspected double cross.” He kept staring at Darion as he spoke. After all his puffing and posturing were done. the man spoke. seeming almost calm. The guildmaster. a feat that no other thief in all of Sereval could boast of. who he’s affiliated with. “Find me the best assassin money can buy. He looked up and met the guildmaster’s gimlet gaze. ended quickly. they’d have merely given the girl a long head start. motioned for Darion to come closer. however. did she?” Darion didn’t answer. Perhaps she was even a match for The Wraith. “No. She had accomplished that seemingly impossible mission. “She took it with her. sending the portly man off on another predictable rant. I don’t care who he is.now. promising punishments as imaginative as they were brutal.” The guildmaster stared hard into Darion’s eyes. breaking into the mage Garadel’s tower apparent ease. This one. abruptly aware that the room had gone ominously still. The messenger narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. The guildmaster already knew that the circlet that Kat had been assigned to steal was missing as well. Darion nodded to his master.
“I will see her dead.never blinking.” *** Jerhin's polishing rag did more to smear the dirt around on the bar than clean it. Still. ever the smooth and unruffled messenger. it kept his mind off Kat's danger – danger he couldn’t help but feel he had placed her it – so he scrubbed industriously until the sharp sound of wood shattering spun him about. the guildmaster sat and stared down at the fast drying puddle of dark wine pooled on his expensive imported rug. neither moving. louts! The Dragon’s Den be closed! Hie ye out now. For many breaths the old dwarven warrior and the Hellspawn faced each other. bowed swiftly and departed. whatever time it takes. At last. but was rewarded with silence. bring him to me. “Whatever it costs. His eyes widened in shock as he beheld the wreckage of what had moments ago been a thick oaken door. gravelly voice strong and unwavering. or taste a bit of me steel!” Jerhin hefted his worn axe for emphasis. his rotund face as firm and grim as Darion had ever seen. a pitiful one compared to the massive size of the two he confronted.” As Darion. Though he couldn’t see the faces concealed behind those black helms. Whatever the cost. one of the horrors spoke in a voice that sighed and whispered like wind through a 65 . Jerhin spoke boldly. ebon-armored warriors who stood impassively flanking the splintered threshold. the dwarf could feel his skin burning under the weight of their hidden gaze. greasy cloth still clutched in his hoary fist. Drawing himself up to his full four-foot height. His stunned gaze traveled slowly up from the shards of splintered wood to the two silent. “Get ye gone.
last surviving warrior of Clan Stoneblade. Jerhin watched death come for him.” Moving as one. nameless odors. flanked by two bored looking men armed with spears. charged into a battle he could not win. and advanced. ye’ll not have an easy time of it. smoke and other. *** “Halt. me girl. His nose wrinkled in distaste as he caught a whiff of the sour smell of stale sweat. The axe in Jerhin’s hand lifted unconsciously as the anger and fear within him rose at the allusion to Katrina. his voice dropping to a growling rumble. “Ye leave me girl alone. Where is the thief. the dusk-armored knights raised their shadowy halberds in a silent challenge. Gripping his axe in both white-knuckled hands.” The battle-light in his eyes burst into roaring flame. Keeping as far from her as he could without attracting the notice of his commander. and his eyes narrowed dangerously.” He whispered into his beard.long-forgotten cemetery. “Flee far. ‘my lady’?” A raspy voice trickled from the shadows under 66 . and Jerhin Warsong. ogresired hunk of fossilized horse dung! Ye’ll have to carve me ta ribbons afore I’ll let ye go after her!” The gleam of the razored axe blade matched the battlelight that had ignited in the dwarf’s faded blue eyes. he crossed his steel-plated arms over his chest and fixed the slumped figure with a sneer. woman!” The guard stepped forward. the palm of his mailed right hand extended towards the shabbily dressed beggar-woman. Where is the woman. ya steel-faced. “And where might you be headed. bellowing like a titan. “I’ll hold them as long as I can. “And I warn ye.
striding away from Sereval.” Throwing off the smelly rags with a sigh of relief. Still. glad for the excuse to rid himself of the beggar’s stench. not surprised. *** Sabre had no idea where he was. The guard stepped back. it does come in handy. The rag-covered old beggar shambled forward.” He gestured to his men to lower their spears. Dawnkeep was home to the Knights of Redemption. Safely away from the eyes of the sentinels atop the town walls. “Such fools. and returned to scanning the crowd. thirty miles to the east. perhaps thousands of years. “Dawnkeep. It’s amazing that the citizens feel secure with idiots like those defending them. looking for the young woman he’d been well paid to arrest. The healing powers of the paladins that defended the keep were often the last hope of those whom even the powerful local priests couldn’t cure. “Very well then. The templefortress of Dawnkeep was a common destination for pilgrims afflicted with various diseases. walking slowly between the guards and out the gate. and heading in the direction of Brooksford. Kat adjusted the pack slung across her back and started off. He had never 67 .” The guard nodded. Be on your way. No one knew how long exactly. the only home she had ever known. Kat pushed back the grease-stained cowl and smiled roguishly the way she had come.the filthy hood. an order that had existed for hundreds. and the mighty clerical magics that were passed down from generation to generation of those within had been long forgotten by the world beyond the keep's gates.
Taking quick aim as the eagle and rider drew closer. Cor-Tarain twisted in his saddle and looked down at the scrambling figure below. dry grass in a panicked effort to anchor himself to the world. Rolling to his feet. Sabre twisted desperately as a bolt of crystalline blue-white lightning spat through the air and drove into the ground. shrieking with anger as its intended prey rolled aside. he had flung himself to the ground: clinging to the long. a javelin of crackling energy filled his hand. When he had first entered the true prairie several days ago. gave Sabre the feeling that he would float off the earth and drift up into the boundless blue reaches of the sky. Sabre flung his arm smoothly forward and cast the spear before rolling aside once again. At the last minute. The unimaginable size of the sky. Cor-Tarain leveled the smooth wand he held at his target and uttered the command word. As his eagle went into another dive.ventured outside of his tribe’s forest territory. Instantly. barely avoiding the talons of the giant eagle that swept over him. and the immense openness of the plains in which he now found himself terrified him. the sound of wind rushing through feathers warned him and Sabre threw himself to the ground. Now he was careful to walk with his eyes focused straight ahead. hooked talons reaching. Sabre awakened the magic of the bronze cuff encircling his right wrist. never looking up into the frightening emptiness of the sky. So intent was he on avoiding a skyward glance that the attack took him completely by surprise. The rider’s 68 . and the fact that he was the tallest thing in sight. a frown twisting his fine elven features as the great wings of his mount beat the air for lift and then dipped into a graceful turn that brought the huge raptor around for another pass.
and he gestured frantically as the spear thundered home. Stormshadow opened his wickedly curved beak with a pitiful croak as he felt his master’s hand. his eagle Stormshadow flailed weakly in the dirt. Nearby. he found that he no longer knew what to believe.eyes went wide. feeling the world spin about him. Cor-Tarain pulled himself dazedly to his feet. and he mourned its death. but at the same time. He hadn’t meant to hit the animal. CorTarain cast the only necromantic spell allowed by elven society: the lifequench that drained the spark from Stormshadow’s bleeding eyes and freed the great bird from its pain. *** Kat sighed as she lay down on her bedroll. His eyes filling with tears. She 69 . the tenderness and mercy that the elf showed went against all the stories he’d heard about the vicious and cruel beings. The elders of his tribe had said that the elves were callous monsters that cared nothing for the suffering of others so long as they were not threatened themselves. He had barely had enough time to spin a protective shield before the bolt struck. blinded and mortally wounded. Tears streaking his dirt-smeared cheeks. Cor-Tarain moved next to the great bird and reached out with a trembling hand to touch the once glossy feathers that were now dirty and wet with blood. Sabre watched the elf tend to his mount with a mixture of sorrow and confusion. As he watched the elf’s griefstricken motions. blasting him from the saddle and sending him crashing to earth.
Kat’s right hand flashed down to her sword. Now that the day’s light was fading. Kat’s heart leapt into her mouth. but her body remained calm as it sped through its practiced motions. As a precaution – against human intruders she assured herself – she had rigged the perimeter of the camp to alert her to any movement larger than a squirrel.had made camp that night in the Razorwood. Kat lunged at it. and on and on. Kat turned back to face her camp…to see a creature sitting on her bedroll watching her. Kat was finding it easier and easier to give the stories credence. With an odd sigh of exasperation. they would find her armed and ready. a small forest that enjoyed a fearsome reputation among the people of the neighboring villages. snatching it smoothly from its scabbard. however. intercepted her blade with a familiar black 70 . blade whirling around her body before diving at the motionless creature. Creatures were said to inhabit it that could kill with a glance. with the fluid grace of a dancer. darkness swirling about its body like a cloak and. For the hundredth time the thief rose to check her snares and tripwires. strike them with plague. Earlier Kat had scoffed at such tales. As though performing a drill back in the Thieves’ Guild. the creature rose before the assault. Not pausing to allow her opponent time to evaluate or prepare. Having double checked the wires and traps. turn a person to stone. its only distinct features two gleaming red eyes that stared at her from the thick darkness. The man-sized intruder was completely robed in shadow. Even if an enemy was fortunate enough to survive the vicious traps Kat had set up as a first defense. and made the decision to camp here because few others dared to venture under the dark boughs.
dismissing his cloak of shadows with a thought. before the item you carry sensed 71 . “I needed your protection to get me out of the city safely. “Indeed Mistress. he spoke. his lean face as unreadable as ever. Mistress. You carry something of incredible power and value. “That would not be advisable. Mistress. will be able to track me now.” Far from reassured. Swiftly bringing her weapon to bear again and feeling for the dagger sheathed at the small of her back. and the red eyes inclined in a nod. and Kat began to sweat. but kept the blade between her and the fighter.sword. “It is. suddenly realizing how very vulnerable she was. and so I shall.” For a small eternity Erebus stared down at her. At last. but it took me some time to recover from the aura surrounding the temple you were taken to. Kat lowered her sword. Kat regarded her adversary carefully. I have done that. Erebus shrugged his shoulders. I have said that I will protect you. humorless grin. and those who pursue you will doubtless go to great lengths to acquire it.” Taken aback. save a druid or a ranger. You and I part ways here.” Erebus smiled coldly. “I was within your mind briefly. "Is it true?" For many breaths Erebus held her gaze silently before nodding. “This changes nothing. I’ll simply disappear.” Seeing her discomfort. “What? How could you possibly…. No one. “Erebus?” Brilliant white teeth flashed from the darkness in a quick. My apologies for arriving so late. Kat stared at him in bewilderment.” Kat shook her head. here in the middle of the night-darkened woods with naught but a sharpened piece of metal in her hand and a couple of small vials of holy water in her pack – which was sitting behind the vampire.
was comparatively easy to manipulate. her blade coming up instinctively. “I was in your mind only briefly before the item discovered me and threw up barriers that I didn’t care to try and breach. Was the vampire speaking the truth. his smooth. feeling overwhelmed by Erebus’ revelations. emotionless voice gripping her like ice. Such power of will is unusual. Though she believed she was far beyond the 72 .” Erebus’ cold eyes bored into Kat like twin sword points. and she shuddered beneath their weight. as Jerhin had pointed out. by nature more resilient than you to mental control. discover that the item you carry is truly ancient. “I do not know the extent of the artifact’s power. and I suggest you accept those allies available to you. You denied my influence in the inn when I tried to compel you to flee. and I was curious as to where you found the strength.” Kat’s expression changed rapidly from confusion to horror as she recalled the strange paralyzation that had gripped her in the Dragon’s Den. Mistress. Your unexpected resilience intrigued me.” Kat hesitated for a long time. however. Unbothered by her reaction. as he claimed. her mind whirling. or did he seek some other. especially in one unprepared to resist such a technique. or was this some clever ruse intended to allow him to stay close to his prey? Was he truly an ally. and possessed of a limited sentience. he could also be. but it is not a thing to be treated lightly. She took a step back from the vampire. Even your dwarven friend. a formidable ally. I did.my intrusion and pushed me out. shadowy goal? Dangerous as the vampire certainly was. Erebus continued talking. though faced with the raw power of the vampire she knew it to be of little use. even compared to me. You are in grave danger.
past the limited and ultimately futile pleasures that love. pledge my sword.” Erebus said. “I past long ago beyond caring for the brief.” He glanced at Kat.” He held up his sword. the crimson runes that trailed down the blade pulsing like a heart. “Very well. quest I’ve encountered in a hundred years. “I. scampering lives of those mortals around me. Across the clearing. “Why do you care what happens to me or the circlet? Why are you so determined to stay at my side?” Erebus shrugged. There is only one thing I crave from my existence now. However. and my skill to you until such time as you release me. I require your oath that you will not betray or attack me. “I’m issuing you my first order: NEVER go into my head again!” “As you wish Mistress.reach of the guild. his flat eyes never wavering. kindness and good deeds could provide. is perhaps the most dangerous. she might well need his sword again if the mage set more otherworldly creatures in pursuit. Discovering more about this little mystery you’ve found yourself in possession of. then turned blazing eyes on him. Mistress: a challenge. and waited for her decision.” Kat held his red eyes with her green ones for a long moment. “Very well Mistress. and therefore interesting. my strength.” Erebus hesitated for a long moment. dropping a 73 . You may continue to accompany me. Erebus. then shrugged again. I am loath to turn my back on such a prospect. I seek an adversary and an adventure worthy of my skill. and finally gave a curt nod. Erebus stood silent and motionless. and that you will follow my orders. the very fact that you so obviously know nothing of what you ask permits me to agree. and keeping it from those who seek it. his face impassive. “Will that suffice?” She nodded.
and her body still ached from the aftereffects of the imp venom. Your ‘Garadel’ wants this artifact desperately.” Kat didn’t have to ask how he knew about Garadel. Then we’ll know what further steps to take. that much is certain. “We shall find out soon enough. “Truth be known. Kat rose and approached the shadowy figure of 74 . as though she were an interesting insect pinned to a table for his amusement.” He straightened. A magic wielder may be able to tell us more about this item and its power. I will stand guard throughout the night. Ignoring her expression. it is unlikely I could do so without your permission anyway. Get some rest. yet sleep eluded her. There must be a reason. At last. “I shall never enter your thoughts again. She was exhausted from the hard pace she'd set. wrapping herself in her blanket to ward off the chilly night air and closed her eyes. keeping one hand always on the hilt of her dagger.low. and his eyes met Kat’s firmly again. “I suggest that we begin by seeking out a mage. but which remained none the less.” He paused for a moment. there was danger near . She just couldn't shake the feeling that something incredibly dangerous and evil was approaching. save if you invite me in.an intangible feeling of menace the source of which she couldn't identify. regarding her critically. and perhaps we would be better prepared to proceed. Something wasn't right. somewhat sarcastic bow. Nothing will enter this camp alive. and we must discover what that reason is. Erebus turned and gestured with his free hand toward Kat’s bedroll.” Kat nodded and lay down. though she gritted her teeth at the further evidence that he had indeed been inside her thoughts. after tossing and turning for nearly an hour. now that your item is on guard against such intrusions.
For a long time they stood silently. neither moving. Erebus cocked a sardonic eyebrow. I don't believe that you're some vicious. no matter how much you want me to think you are. "Who am I? I have already told you. I am Erebus. she felt the weight of his cold gaze settle upon her along with the now-familiar chill of fear that his presence always seemed to inspire. There is nothing more…. Kat interrupted. As she neared him. "I don't believe that's all there is to you. standing still as death on the far side of camp. You saved my life when I was poisoned. More years than he could count had passed since another being had dared to question or argue with him. I am darkness and shadow. until at last Kat broke the silence. knowing that if she met his icy gaze she'd lose her nerve. and injured yourself to do it. murderous beast that thrives on carnage and exists only to deal death. she continued inexorably. she moved up beside him and gazed into the darkness. poking a slim finger against his breastplate to punctuate her words. not only to ward off the damp night air but also to check that her weapons remained within easy reach." Angry now. watching the congealing shadows. "Who are you?" Surprised. hardly more than a child. "You are not a monster. "I don't believe you. You may be able to convince others." Taken aback. but I know that there is some goodness within you. A monster would not have done that.Erebus. Kat turned to face the vampire squarely. I am the incarnation of Death and War." 75 . As he stared. stunned by the termity of this girl." Not taking her eyes off the shadowy trees. Wrapping her arms around herself. Erebus turned his full attention to the startling young woman beside him.
old men and babies as they cried for mercy. and who dedicated each bloody act to their gods of charity and compassion.Erebus stood. a conviction that things such as Justice existed in the world and that Right would ultimately prevail. beliefs born of a foolish confidence in Virtue and Honor. 76 . A part of him bared its claws and salivated at the thought of shredding her ideals to gory ribbons and dragging her down into the cold. Part of him longed to tear down that veil of innocence and show her the truth. the inquisitions that he had witnessed. speechless in the face of her tirade. holy men and honorable knights slaughtering women and children. Force her to see the stark horror of reality: to hold before her bleeding eyes the atrocities committed in the name of the very values she held so dear. The wars. A part of him sneered at her words. iron world that she had somehow shielded herself from. And a part of him wept.
Rolling smoothly to his feet. polished stick at him. Sabre charged the 77 . so why was he so enraged? Sabre could understand the elf’s sorrow over his steed’s passing.” Sabre was puzzled. but the insult of “worm” could not be overlooked. Puzzled. worm. Cor-Tarain turned from Stormshadow’s still corpse and faced his opponent: this barbarian that had dared to intrude on elven soil and had now taken the life of his prized mount. It was doubtful that this one would fight with honor. nor had he intended to kill the eagle. wondering what manner of weapon this was. as tradition demanded. despite the dishonor of the elf’s sneak attack. He had not started this confrontation. Was it possible that this…? He was already leaping aside as the bolt smashed in. blasting a black circle on the earth where he’d been standing moments before. His words rasped through gritted teeth as he brought his arms up in a casting stance. and making the hair on his body stand on end. The memory of the lightning bolt flashed through his mind suddenly. but Sabre was determined that he himself would do so. Drawing his scimitar. He’d been to busy dodging to wonder about where it had come from. Sabre twirled it through a complex series of maneuvers before dropping into a deep bow to the elf. Sabre watched motionlessly.CHAPTER 7 Fury snapping in his ice blue eyes. The elf sneered in contempt and aimed a short. He had even given his foe the respectful time to mourn a fallen comrade that tradition demanded. “You will pay dearly for that. The elf had attacked him and he had defended himself. his reflexes had simply avoided it. It seemed that elves were savages after all.
then rebounded in an explosion of multicolored sparks as it struck an invisible barrier. but at least he’d fall in battle. Perhaps he could even redeem himself for his cowardice against the demonic goblin. Sprinting in. the fighter’s reflexes were truly astounding. He couldn’t believe the barbarian had managed to dodge his first bolt at such a short distance. Sabre whipped the razor edge of his scimitar across in a savage arc that had a good deal more power than finesse behind it. It was likely that he was going to die. Sabre looked on in helpless shock as his opponent raised his stick again. This was power beyond anything he had ever imagined. Cor-Tarain smiled grimly as he took aim. its carved bone grip tearing from his hand. He’d paralyze this fool. All he could think to do was get close enough to launch an attack of his own.elf. No sense in 78 . Stunned. but there was no way he’d be able to avoid a point-blank discharge. call rain and even summon spirit animals. his fingers throbbing and his weapon shuddering in the ground many steps away. he triggered the lightning again. In his younger days. He had to cut this elf down quickly before he could unleash his power again. then destroy him. Lining the wand up with the warrior’s stunned face. Cursing loudly and fluently in Elvish. but he had never seen magic like this. The fighter flinched as the wand emitted a brief sputtering. then looked at him curiously when nothing else happened. The fine steel moaned as it clove the air. Cor-Tarain dropped the spent wand and began moving his hands though the gestures of an immobilization spell. not pausing to try to figure out how it was that his foe kept lightning on a leash. showering him with sparks. Sabre had seen the village shaman conjure visions.
Stubbornly. but he could hardly allow the elf to regain his senses. Plus. Honor refused to allow him to slay an unarmed and helpless opponent. No weapon should have been able to penetrate his barrier. but now what? *** 79 . His opponent was fighting barehanded! The spell wouldn’t…. but darkness covered his vision and the world faded away. too far away to reach in time. His enemy lay defeated. with Stormshadow slain. Sabre’s second blow caught him under the chin and threw him to his back. His steelguard spell should have worked. and widened with sudden realization. He struggled to stay alert. especially when he wasn’t sure of the extent of his powers. staring at the warrior in blurry confusion. even more powerful weapon to seal his doom. That wand had been expensive. his two-inch long claws extended and ready. Cor-Tarain sensed something was wrong and looked up just in time to catch Sabre’s fist on the jaw. but uncertain of what he should do.wasting more spells than he had to. but something had obviously gone wrong with the elf’s strange weapon. then down at his hands. Sabre stood over the elf’s senseless body. He knew he had to seize this chance before the elf drew some other. and now he’d have to buy another one. he held his feet. he’d be forced to rely on his limited number of remaining spells to get him back to Varadell. still firmly imbedded in the turf nearby. Sabre didn’t know what had happened. Sabre looked to his sword. What had happened? His eyes caught the fighter’s scimitar.
Though its eyes were no longer anything but blackened pits through which burning red light glowed. desiccated neck as Flame evaluated his surroundings. twisting its skull-like head to survey the damage. unable to spread the glorious fires that fueled its energy. they seemed to radiate satisfaction. The tree collapsed. replacing this charred husk with a fresh host. It was in the middle of a forest.The relentless heat had burned most of the goblin’s flesh away. Perhaps it had been too hasty in sating its hunger. This shell would have to be replaced soon. branches curling in on themselves with a cry of arboreal agony. Flame raised a hand and sent a wash of fire rolling over a nearby maple. Flame would once again be immobile. and Flame felt the familiar surge of power flood through its essence as it considered its dilemma. The creature’s head swiveled atop the shrunken. perhaps one could be brought here. Flame now almost regretted the firestorm it had unleashed in the clearing where it had stumbled upon the tribe of tiger-warriors. The creature's burning eyes brightened and its whole body acquired a bloody radiance as Flame 80 . and the stone's careless use of the body had broken one of its arms. If the body fell apart completely. The remaining skin crackled grotesquely as Flame bent the body's limbs this way and that. Perhaps it should have attempted to dominate one of the fighters. Flame cocked its misshapen head and carefully studied the blaze and the resulting cloud of thick black smoke wafting up from the living wood. If it could not seek out a replacement host. far from civilization and the crowds of people that would offer a suitable replacement body. Twisting the goblin’s body. and this current host probably wouldn't survive an extended journey.
Erebus tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword. Or rather. As the plants ignited. creatures. This spectacle could not possibly be overlooked. Flame's power increased. Awash in star-bright flames. the camp was suddenly flooded with an eerie crimson light. the goblin smiled. and soon adventurers would be swarming through this forest. growing larger with impossible speed. Flame sent smaller tendrils of fire snaking out to touch the surrounding trees. Narrowing his eyes. The pair of enormous knights. the creature stood before them. The hungry flames clawed at the heavens with a sound like the screams of a hundred enraged wyverns.gathered its power in full. These were no mortal knights and no mere lesser demons. encaged within a crackling nimbus of searing red lightning. the companions found themselves facing a swirling tunnel of blood red light…a tunnel through which something approached. Soon. her hands defensively in front of her eyes to ward off the sudden blast of dirt. Feeling its energy draining. *** As Erebus opened his mouth to refute Kat’s ridiculous claims. and the sky lit with a hellish glow visible for miles around. One would be the new host. stared down at Erebus for several minutes in motionless silence. and the column of fire surged upward with renewed rage. as the imp had been. armored from head to toe in unbroken black plate armor. The others would be fuel. With a silent explosion of air that sent Kat stumbling back a step. though he thought it likely that the same person had 81 . Flame raised its hands and sent an enormous pillar of fire raging into the black sky. Spinning around.
sent them. unchanging. long time now. Erebus settled into a practiced stance. death. He could sense the waves of power flowing from them. buying Kat some time to flee. a sickening tide of pure evil. but all too soon he would fall. no joy. no love. banishing the thoughts of futility and doom from his mind. discarding each as more ludicrous than the last. Erebus had been seeking the elusive figure of death for a long. He had reached a level of power unknown to all but the rarest of his kind. they would catch her. His expression soured slightly as he ran swiftly through a multitude of plans and stratagems. He could probably hold them back for awhile. unable to escape the inevitable conclusion: he could buy Kat some time. and she would die. what was power without that spark said to be divine. Surprised. and drove them to better both themselves and the world around them? For the first hundred years. He had wandered the world for an eternity it seemed. the so called Master Vampires – kings of Undeath that had advanced so far beyond the world of men that their might was the stuff of legends and whispered fireside tales. but he couldn’t defeat them both. Erebus felt doubt rising in him. And yet. knowing no warmth. possibly even destroy one of the behemoths if fate favored him. He would do whatever it took to defeat these abominations. he had clung 82 . to realize how much that grim fact bothered him. Death would not come for Kat here tonight. and a little disturbed. watching all he knew fade and wither and die around him while he strode on. The two before him were high ranking in the infernal hierarchy. final. that fire that blazed so bright and hot in the breasts of mortals. Though his expression remained coldly confident. even if it meant his own.
dispersing it throughout the world. as he stood and watched the places he’d fought so hard for fall to the unstoppable onslaught of time. hoping and yet fearing that death would find him at last. He’d then turned desperately to perfecting the art of the blade. Shaking the thought from his mind. He had become a mere weapon. The mage had been obsessed with the idea of chaining demonic spirits permanently to the Material Plane. that time had come. burying himself in his studies and practice. until none could teach him anything he hadn’t learned a dozen times before. even that balm had vanished. any battle. the mage said again in Erebus’ mental ear. A thousand and more years later. that too had been enough. A conversation he’d had with an aged wizard centuries ago surged to the forefront of his memories. His mind churning. a demon entering the material realm would abruptly dematerialize. or the wise kings he’d trusted in betray their ideals. Lacking a corporeal form.desperately to the remaining embers of that flame. his thin voice cracking with excitement. However. Soon though. Now apparently. Erebus focused his gaze on his opponents. He had thrown himself into battle. all done in the hope that he could make a difference. “lies in that the Hells comprise a plane of negative energy. “The problem”. with as little emotion as a sword. saving lives and defending kingdoms. There had to be a way to banish their spirits back to the Abyss. those embers had gone cold. an unthinking golem. For several lifetimes. The forces at work within this plane would rend its essence in moments. thus creating nearly invincible soldiers. Erebus dredged up everything he knew about the Hells. always joining the losing side. fanning it by trying to do good and noble deeds. creating a physical shell to house 83 .
you overmuscled buffoon?! Fine. “Are you incapable of understanding the most basic concepts. the Material Plane as we call it. none of the demons have a physical form. this level of existence. for even as it protects the demon’s essence.” He spoke in an exaggeratedly patient tone. In their home plane. is a dimension of positive energy. For example. that very essence is eating 84 . very strong concentrations of negative energy. “there are other dimensions besides this one. It takes a continual and concentrated flow of the summoner’s magic to maintain that body. a shell of sorts that prevents the positive energy of this plane from leaching out the demon’s negative energy and dispersing it. “First of all. is formed of negative energy. the mage had thrown up his hands in frustration. Every force is essentially a creative one. One such plane is that which houses the Hells. as though lecturing a rather simple child. these creatures are pure essence. Even those that destroy do so through the creation of something else. I’ll try to explain this in terms you may be able to comprehend.” “When such a demon is summoned. for negative energy cannot be used to create.” At Erebus’ blank look. not destroyed. Planes of existence with vastly different forces at work within them.even a single demon powerful enough to provide the services I seek would be a huge and continuous drain. Using only the energy of this plane. fine. as with all its denizens. nothing can be really destroyed.” he said. Instead. part of the magic that calls it here creates a body for this essence to inhabit.” “However. stabbing a bony finger skyward dramatically. requiring a continuous feed of power to maintain it. and smoke. One form of creative energy is merely changed into another. ash. a book destroyed by fire creates heat. That plane.
The mage must be constantly reinforcing the barrier. these horrors seemed unable to see her. Erebus restrained himself from looking toward Kat.” “For this reason. and the more energy it drains from the mage. draining the wizard’s very life-force to prolong its form and remain in this world. it’s just that one can keep a secret better than two. That being the case. The greater the demon. Erebus grated his response through clenched teeth. the larger and stronger the essence. “You 85 . I won’t be telling you this little secret. For some reason that he couldn’t begin to understand. Feeling the violence in the air thicken. no mage would dare to summon a demon that he felt unable to easily control. But. even though she stood mere feet in front of them.away at it from the inside. and therefore the body. the demon will be freed from any constraints placed upon it. Where is the item. you must have armor for the soul!” The velvet whisper of a demon-knight’s voice cut through the fog of Erebus’ memories and tore him back to the present. And even these minor demons must be banished back to the Abyss as soon as possible to prevent too much strain on the summoner. Where is the thief. my boy! That’s the trick to summoning demons. he wasn’t about to draw their attention to her presence. “Armor for the soul.” Winking at Erebus. but they seemed unable to pinpoint her. They obviously knew she was somewhere in the vicinity. Nothing personal. I may have perfected a way for such a demon to remain in this world interminably! Of course. If the mage fails to maintain control over the flow of energy. and will continue to feed upon the hapless mage’s energy wildly. he suddenly threw his hands out wide.
almost resigned voice. and Erebus blurred forward with all of his incredible speed. eyes flaming and fangs bared in a fearsome grin. standing unsure behind him.shall not have her. awakened fury. trying to discover if his teeth were as loose as they felt.” Moving as one being. Without looking at Kat. the vampire raised his black sword skyward. Running a questing tongue around his aching jaw. but with a shuddering undercurrent of excitement. he brought a hand up to his pounding head. CHAPTER 8 The world came back to Cor-Tarain slowly. and felt the razor-sharp 86 . knowing that he was hopelessly overmatched. “Run. The runes running the length of the blade blazed in sudden.” Watching the knights approach. Erebus spoke in a calm. along with a throbbing headache. the gigantic knights saluted with their halberds and moved forward.
How could he possibly think that anything worthwhile could come of communicating with the 87 . Sabre didn’t know what to do. he would be offered no such opportunity. “You speak? You understand the language of my people?” Now it was Cor-Tarain’s turn to be stunned. This barbarian had language? Cor-Tarain had assumed that the animal’s communication consisted of grunts and yowls. he couldn’t just slay him out of hand. the elf spoke. the deadly curve of his sword held in one hand with an easy familiarity born of long use. but speaking nonetheless. and gazed at him curiously. “Well? What are you waiting for barbarian? Kill me. and soon to be executioner. Even an animal being hunted was given more respect. The enmity between the elves and the tiger-warriors ran deep. if you plan to. were their roles reversed. unsure of how to proceed. You’ll not get me to beg for mercy.edge of a blade touch the side of his neck almost tenderly. He froze. if that’s what you’re thinking.” Sabre stared in amazement for several minutes before responding. but here it was speaking the common tongue. heavily accented perhaps. Staring resolutely at his captor.” He paused. much to his astonishment. and his eyes snapped open to focus on the fighter sitting across from him. The feline warrior sat calmly. Cor-Tarain spoke. and Sabre was certain that. Still. “I…I understand. Sabre’s line of thought was broken as. he thought grimly. Should he challenge the elf to another battle? It didn’t seem wise to allow him such a chance.
he didn’t see that he had a choice. Cor-Tarain was startled by the look of unadulterated terror on the warrior’s face.creature? Yet. He had to get back to Varadell and warn the Council of what he had seen. Cor-Tarain could easily activate the deadly ring that he wore on the middle finger of his right hand. His enemy was distracted. it could mean disaster for the already weakened race. emotionless voice urged Cor-Tarain to seize this chance. What was he to do? What was the honorable path? He needed an Elder to guide him! He was too young to be faced with trials such as this! He was barely past his fifteenth summer. staring aghast at the distant forest from whence the fiery column had sprung. Whatever had caused such a powerful display made his squabble with the feline warrior seem trivial. Somewhere in his mind. Sabre held his scimitar uncertainly. He suddenly realized with a cold certainty that the young fighter knew exactly what had caused that 88 . Jumping to his feet and spinning around. and even had his back turned. The huge pillar clawed at the firmament with savage fury for what seemed an eternity before slowly subsiding. momentarily forgetting his prisoner. If the creature that had unleashed that destruction was approaching the elven city. he saw the elf’s eyes go wide and a moment later felt a tremor run through the land beneath him. Sabre watched in horror as a massive pillar of flame roared into the air. As he moved to stand beside his former adversary. how could he be expected to know what to do? It wasn’t fair! Suddenly. Yet he didn’t move. a cold. watching the sunlight gleam from the sweeping steel of the warrior’s blade.
it drew him from the swirling morass of his thoughts and dreams. The elf smiled weakly back at him. directing. and held up his empty hands in a gesture of peace. he blinked several times. of soaring arrows that killed from great distances. a faintly familiar voice. Gradually he became aware of the pressure of a slim hand on his shoulder. drained and empty inside. They lacked the courage and honor to meet their opponents fairly in battle. There was nothing he could have done. Sabre was lost. he couldn’t. Asking. It was suicide. Hesitantly. remaining safely out of range of even the strongest warrior’s 89 . They were cruel and terrible beings of roaring magic and destruction. saw the hellish flames. Confused. The voice spoke again. gentle but firm. guiding him back to full awareness. and softly melodious. and a graceful. compelling. He couldn’t fight. trying to orient himself and remember what had happened. once again buried in his torturous memories and overwhelming guilt. slimfingered hand pressed the hilt of his sword into his grasp. he reached out and touched the warrior on the shoulder. A voice followed. Staring up at him in helpless confusion. coming from beside him. Sabre’s eyes fluttered open. He felt so weak. No one could ask him to.pillar. Sabre clutched the grip as though to steady himself. Sabre doubted he could even move to defend himself if the elf attacked. It wasn’t his fault. fingers tracing the familiar smoothness of the bone handle as he slowly turned his head and looked to the side. and he found himself staring up at the endless blue sky. Why was the elf not attacking? Surely it was not due to a sense of honor? Elves had no honor. smelled the burning flesh. He again heard the screams.
the shadowy blade driving deep into the earth where he’d been standing.” *** The nearest knight stumbled backward under Erebus’ savage initial assault. Erebus dove aside as the second knight’s halberd slammed down. Again and again Erebus lashed out. for we face a truly terrible threat. You have faced it before. His blazing sword merely rebounded harmlessly from the dark armor without leaving so much as a scratch. The sight of it triggered an emotional collapse.” “Rest. You and I are no longer enemies. I can see the burns on your flesh. You will be very weak for some time as your system tries to recover from the shock. and the demon showed no discomfort. “You know what caused that fire. the huge halberd swinging wide as the demon was knocked off balance. scoring many direct hits. Erebus stared down at his weapon as though it had betrayed him. He wielded the mighty Alazon: the legendary Slayer of Heroes and one of the most powerful weapons in existence. When you are stronger.javelin. I am watching over you. If it couldn’t even touch these abominations. Rolling to his feet and dropping into a balanced crouch. you must tell me of your experience. The last words he heard before the familiar darkness closed in were: “I am Cor-Tarain.” The elf’s gentle voice seemed to come from a great distance. Erebus watched his opponents approach through narrowed eyes.” His voice faded farther as Sabre lost conscienceness. but to no effect. how could he hope to succeed? Catching sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. “You were overcome by a fever of the brain and collapsed. his mind working furiously as 90 .
the demon dropped its halberd and reached behind itself like a man trying to scratch an unreachable itch. Staggering. then what could she possible hope to accomplish? The only thing she could do was run and even that left her fate far from certain. Uncertainly Kat hefted her sword. and a heavy punch from the second knight launched him across the clearing. his sword dropping from his hand. There was nothing she could do. Again and again he barely managed to parry in time. Kat watched. She couldn’t do this. Erebus knew that he was about to die. He stared upward resignedly at the huge black blade that hung poised above him and prepared his damned soul for the Abyss. the strength of the blows slamming him backward. As Erebus crashed into the ground. the only sound was the hiss of steel biting through air and the occasional clash of blade on blade. She wasn’t a fighter. their strikes too fast for even Erebus to avoid. Kat’s eyes narrowed and her knuckles whitened on her own sword’s grip. For all their savagery. as the strange battle raged around the clearing. the spikes on his armor digging furrows in the dirt. She couldn’t make herself enter that battle. Sweat ran down her body as the dark knights pressed the attack. Another savage blow knocked Erebus to his knees. her sword hanging forgotten in her hand. If she was to die. and if even Erebus couldn’t defeat these monsters. the knight suddenly stiffened and loosed a horrifying wail of agony. 91 . the combatants were eerily silent. its weight feeling awkward and unfamiliar for the first time. Unexpectedly. then she’d do it in battle. She wouldn’t allow this to happen.he tried to think of a way to defeat his inhuman foes.
and again it howled as the thief drew her dagger and slammed it into the behemoth’s side. her weapons tearing from her hands and spinning to the ground. Erebus launched himself upright as the two knights converged on the downed woman. the demon finally managed to throw Kat off. Erebus tried frantically to understand how Kat had managed to injure these seemingly unstoppable beings. Spinning and twisting frantically. Calling his sword to him.As the knight spun around. the massive weapon rising from the earth and soaring to his hand. tongues of poisonous green lightning clawing at the dark steel. the creature turned to face this newest threat. harmed a beast that was immune to his most devastating attacks? Nothing on this plane should be able to stand before the Alazon’s aroused fury. The Alazon shrieked like a thing in pain as its rending magics strove to overcome the armor’s defenses. Erebus’ eyes went wide as he suddenly realized 92 . and yet it harmlessly rebounded time and time again. and they were no longer interested in him at all. slamming the blade against the creature’s wide back with all of his superhuman strength. and the demon didn’t even bother to turn. still trying to reach behind itself. a mundane sword devoid of even the most rudimentary enchantment. It seemed as though whatever miracle had prevented them from detecting her was gone now. How had her blade. impaled to its hilt in the demon’s back. Erebus leaped at the closest opponent. Wounded and enraged but hardly weakened. His strike left not a mark on the dark armor. just below the huge helm. Dark red vapors streamed from the small rent in the monster’s armor. sending her tumbling away. Erebus saw Kat hanging from her sword. Snarling to himself. but to no avail.
The only 93 . as the armor struggled but found no magic to repel. Unharmed. A piercing shriek split the night air and the knight spun around. relying on his speed and reflexes to avoid the noticeably slower swings of the halberd. the mere strength and speed of the demons would be too much for nearly any fighter to combat. Since it wasn’t truly a material substance. and charged back in. Yet still it remained on its feet and its companion. Erebus gritted his teeth. Again he leaped at the knight. It had been created to repel all energy. Erebus released his sword and curled his steel-plated fingers into fists. seemingly not at all concerned about its brethren’s fate. just its magic. menaced Kat. He simply wasn’t causing enough damage.” Erebus muttered. and again and again the creature yowled in pain. Erebus grinned briefly to himself as the mage’s long-ago words resounded again in his ear. a huge fist soaring out of the darkness to smash him away. after all. a satisfied expression on his face. “Armor for the soul indeed.the truth: the armor didn’t repel the blade. Erebus rolled to his feet. After meeting only slight resistance. to contain the powerful negative energy of the demon within and shield it from the positive forces at work in the world outside. Erebus felt his blades dig deep. but a field of magical energy designed to look like plate mail. His features hardening in determination. Again and again Erebus pounded with his fists. It wasn’t really armor at all. It wasn’t much of a weakness. but it was a weakness. the red mists of its essence seeping from a hundred minor wounds. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kat diving and rolling frantically away from slashes of the second knight’s halberd. this time striking its back with his spiked knees. especially with a mundane weapon. it couldn’t defend against ordinary weapons.
Despite the pained shrieks that arose whenever his counterstrikes connected. and Erebus wondered how much of this he could take. Erebus became a whirlwind of blows: spiked knees and elbows thrashing. 94 . and the vampire's body shuddered as blow after blow from those mighty fists connected. Its huge helm grated back and forth as it tried to discern her location. and allowed his foe the chance to renew its attack. it was obviously unused to unarmed combat. Erebus strained with all of his considerable strength. A powerful blow threw Erebus to the ground. The fist slammed repeatedly into his face. In desperation. A cry from Kat snapped his head around. but was overmatched by the warrior's sheer power. its huge halberd falling to the trampled turf. The monstrous halberd lay ignored on the turf. Erebus realized that he had lost the advantage. It had taken awhile. and the speed and fury of his opponent's punches didn't lessen. Erebus kept up his hammering. one fist paused in midpunch. or she’d soon be in two pieces. the knight was atop him. but its blows were coming increasingly close. fangs bared and eyes flaring. Erebus needed to end his own battle quickly. iron-shod boots kicking. powerful fists slamming. its gigantic fists smashing down relentlessly. but finally the knight had adapted its strategy to suit the battle. Determined not to allow it to regain its footing. crushing the demon back to earth every time it tried to rise. snapping his head one way then the other. his attacks simply lacked the force to do serious damage.thing that seemed to be saving her was that the knight was still apparently having difficulty pinpointing her exact location. and before he could regain his feet. At last the giant dropped to its knees.
As he struggled weakly to pull himself from under the inert creature. The beating stopped abruptly. Slowly. so slowly. "Down! Down!" he tried to shout.freed from the limitations of life . A scream of pure agony and hatred tore apart the night. Erebus slowly turned his battered head and looked up at his attacker. gripping her recovered dagger. pinning him under its incredible weight. Erebus saw the other knight. The fist hung motionless in the air over his face and the fingers slowly. Tumbling away from another halberd cut. Erebus felt his jaw shatter. seasoned adventurer that he was. Kat gave a sharp twist of her blade and the massive fighter found its voice. language that would’ve had Jerhin. to Kat who stood behind it. sputtering and blushing. halberd raised for a lethal slash at Kat's unprotected back. His body. Her deadly smile widening. tough and strong as it was . his cheekbone cave in. Mortally wounded. a vicious smile on her pretty face…and her sword buried in its back. the grinding 95 . Confused.could only take so much damage before collapse. uncurled. Kat cursed as she saw Erebus go down under the knight’s assault. shakily. she launched herself at the knight pinning Erebus.Another blow. the huge hand tentatively reached around the knight's back. Before the colossus could re-locate her. tore the blade across the knight’s throat. until Kat’s second hand. Surprised. the fighter collapsed atop Erebus. Kat rolled between the giant’s legs and sprang to her feet. its magical armor seriously damaged and too much of its demonic essence stolen by the relentless drain of the material world. its silhouette frozen against the icy light of the stars. Erebus looked past the dark warrior.
voracious hunger of the vampire sublimated. Erebus saw every curve of the blade. that she would help him. The parasite was the source of the vampire’s power. bestial vampire. Most of the time. time seemed to slow to a crawl. Come. thoughts of hatred and destruction. the host remained in control of the body he shared with the parasite.noise of the broken bones in his jaw grating against each other the only sound that emerged from his crushed face. a much more ancient being. Erebus spiraled down into the depths of his mind. You will never return. He suddenly was aware of the thoughts of another. As the cruel halberd swept down. telling him to relax. and of glee at this chance at escape. Every vampire was in essence two creatures: the mortal host. I release you. This body is now mine! Kat fell over backwards as the corpse of the slain knight suddenly tore asunder. releasing control to the Other. Come. feeling distant twinges as the parasite altered his body. Erebus closed his eyes and swiftly sought his center: the core of his vampirism. the host traded his will and control for the full massive strength and bloodlust of a pure. Suddenly he knew. speed. at control. the ragged-edged halves propelled into the air by Erebus' powerful 96 . his immense strength. but it required constant mental concentration to keep the endless. more than the oath that bound him demanded that he protect her. He could not allow her to be harmed. As he lost all feeling and awareness of his physical self. and longevity. he called within the silence of his head. the Other called after him. If unleashed. saw Kat's concerned eyes. her lips moving. and the immortal parasite.
A swipe of the monstrous halberd whistled over the vampire's head. contorted position it was in. His shattered face was shifting. managed to twist and dodge while continuing its own slashing and biting attacks. bubbling sigh and the vampire gave voice to a feral scream of triumph as it savaged the corpse with shredding swipes of its claws. claws reaching eagerly. As she fell. the creature that had been Erebus didn't slow. clawed digits ripping and tearing through the magical armor as though it were parchment. Seeing nothing but the knight standing before him. lengthening and sprouting blade-like talons that matched those springing forth from his toes. the vampire lunged forward. His fingers snapped and popped. At last. The behemoth collapsed with an odd. until his face more resembled that of a monstrous hound than a man. she felt the wind as a gigantic halberd slashed through the air where her head had been moments before. None of the blows connected as the vampire. its whole body radiating confusion. not coming close to connecting as the vampire flowed with liquid speed toward its target. His black armor tore apart. the knight battered at its attacker with brutal slaps of its huge fists. satisfied that its enemy would no longer 97 . A geyser of reddishblack vapor fountained into the air. Dropping its weapon.arms. the bones knitting and pushing forward. A feral snarl tore its way from his throat as his jaws extended and more and more dripping fangs lined his mouth. The battle was over in moments. then again as Erebus rose. and again the night was rent by an inhuman scream of pain. She gasped at the close call. but leapt straight into it. He was…changing. Reaching the knight. no matter what awkward. the straps bursting as already powerful muscles bulged and hardened into giant slabs plating bones that thickened to support them.
muscles tensing and thick saliva drooling from his gaping jaws. As the creature dropped toward her. the creature stalked slowly. Kat pulled the bottle from her pocket and prepared to throw it.offer it battle. Its gaze alighting on the stunned thief. Kat knew that Erebus. Shouting defiantly. If he attacked. claws twitching. smoothly batted the missile harmlessly wide. Kat raised both her hands in a hopeless warding gesture and cried out "Stop!" Kat's eyes widened in disbelief as the vampire suddenly seemed to slam into an invisible barrier just 98 . though after seeing him rip through the nearly invincible knights. only to gasp in horror as the vampire. "Erebus? Erebus! The battle's over! We've won! What're you doing?" Deep inside. Kat flung the fragile bottle. Her fingers reached into a pocket of her jerkin and closed tightly about one of the bottles of holy water that Jerhin had given her. graceful. she was fairly sure that the stinging water would only increase his deadly rage. was beyond reason. searching for flesh to tear. she knew that she couldn't hope to outrun or outfight him. but its bloodlust far from sated. razored claws slashing the turf with every sliding step. inexorably toward her. the vampire's flaming eyes sought another victim. she meant to drench him with as much of the stuff as she could. Erebus halted his leisurely advance and crouched. beyond hearing her. She was about to die. however. without apparent effort. predatory advance. recognizing the signs of attack. His talons chewed the grass as his fingers spastically flexed. fully in the grip of whatever monster he had unleashed. feet and hands outstretched. Watching his smooth. With a blood-freezing roar the vampire leapt.
"Back!" The vampire was slammed backward. throwing out her empty hand toward the vampire. palm forward. her numbed mind trying to understand what had just happened to save her from sure death. All supernatural creatures were governed and controlled by unbreakable rules and conditions laws of ritual that were built into their very existence. There were legends of people who had managed to manipulate even extremely powerful creatures such as pit fiends and archangels and survive through their knowledge of what the being could and could not do according to the rules that bound it. her foolishness. to smash into a tree on the far side of camp. Eyes blazing. his baleful eyes never leaving her. she stepped out to meet his charge. As she saw death approach. A slow smile crawled its way across Kats battered face as she began to understand what was happening. Kat's anger at her helplessness. the creature rose again and advanced a third time. Unable to push his way through the force that held him at bay. Her sluggish thoughts were interrupted as the beast lunged again. Hands still outstretched. circling Kat like a huge wolf. he covered the distance between them in a breath. greedy claws leading. arms flailing wildly.as he was about to reach her. predatory instincts refusing to abandon prey that all his senses told him was helpless. suddenly boiled over. the baffled vampire sprang back and resumed his pacing. Kat stared back at him. Moving with a speed that she would not have thought possible. His head snapped to the side. at everything. Uninjured. She had long ago heard tales that such beings could not even enter the home of a victim unless invited. lethal jaws ripping at air and his talons frantically searching for something tangible to tear. 99 .
Kat would never dare try to manipulate him. that meant that he could not consciously bring her harm. and still bound to her. beast-shape or not. he was still Erebus. Were he his normal. intelligent self. judging from the reaction. for such a game had grave risks. However. trying to appear as confidant and commanding as possible. Erebus' feral eyes narrowed dangerously and he halted. insatiable hunger drove him on. His limited mind was unable to fathom this sudden change in behavior and it made him cautious.It was clear that Erebus had undergone a metamorphosis of some kind that had drastically increased his physical power at the cost of mental agility. but the driving. Many times. and his lips curled back from his 100 . he was still incapable of resisting a direct order from the one to whom he was pledged. As far as she could figure out. watching his prey approach. with Erebus' intelligence seemingly reduced to the level of an animal. Tingling with fear and hope – though a good deal more of the former than the latter – Kat stood straight and strode out to meet the vampire. As she watched the vampire's measured approach. The loophole was that right now he wasn't truly conscious. Erebus had pledged himself to her until she released him. When dealing with vastly more powerful beings than oneself. appearance was everything and implied strength was often more important that actual strength. However. he would simply be too fast and kill her before she could stop him. What choice did she have? Sooner or later. the creature in question was more intelligent than the human trying to control it. trying to discern the rules that could potentially keep her alive. Kat's mind raced. she could probably succeed. and knew of loopholes that were totally unfamiliar to the would-be master. A low rumble echoed from his thick chest.
"Erebus. more over the loss of his prized knights than the death of a rather inept student.savagely hooked teeth. Kat leveled an imperious finger at Erebus and addressed him in a commanding voice. The powerful demons that he had bound within the specially created armor had been slain and sent back to the Abyss. focusing his mind upon it and summoning the image of his servant. to allow him to trace the energy trail and view the place where they had been killed. The death of his knights was recent enough. 101 . and the force of the magical repercussion powerful enough. His skeletal face contorted in rage. A torn robe stained with blood lay beside the pillar on which the crystal sat. he was presented with a view of an empty. Become again the disciplined warrior that you were before. Kalkamar stiffened as he felt the destruction of his personal guard. gorespattered room. and Kalkamar recognized the insignia of his apprentice. the lich rushed to his scrying jewel. Kalkamar waved a hand over the crystal and refocused his mind. Coming to a stop a few feet away. I hereby command it!" CHAPTER 9 Alone in his ruined tower. By the power of your word and your pledge to serve and protect me. Furious. I order you to reverse this transformation. As the image in the crystal coalesced. It seemed that the power of the magical backlash had been strong enough to rip the human’s body apart.
He would learn who was responsible for destroying his favored creations. Erebus’ face turned grim as an explanation occurred to him. The demon-knights. feeding upon its victims to fuel its savagery. It was time to take a more personal hand in this troublesome matter. must have proven more of a challenge than even the full vampire could easily handle. For a long minute nothing seemed to happen. but at last. The world drifted sluggishly back. however. its long limbs twitching as though in the grip of an ague. *** The monster that had been Erebus froze in mid stride. so he couldn’t have consciously willed himself to change. concern etched on her face. How had he reverted? In his bestial state he lacked the mental focus to override the parasite.Kalkamar’s rotting hands curled into fists as they rested on the carved pillar. marveling that his limbs once again moved to his will. Kat ran over the where the fighter lay sprawled. The parasite would have been driven to slay anything and everything that it encountered. and there would be retribution. Something else must have happened. 102 . the vampire’s head craned upwards and it loosed a howl of rage and frustration as its body began to change. It had won the battle. the wolf-like body slowly reverted to Erebus’ natural form. As soon as the transformation was complete. With a sickening crackle of bone. The vampire’s blazing eyes pinned Kat with their malevolent stare and she flinched in spite of herself at the murderous hatred she saw there. as though unwilling to take shape. Erebus slowly raised his face from the dirt. The rage and hunger of a feral vampire were endless and all consuming.
It had been unable to remain in control. staring at Kat as though from a great distance. He had dedicated his existence to becoming a machine of war: cold. but the vampire had no such difficulty. but the effort must have drained too much of the parasite’s strength. against those attachments that 103 . unfeeling. He couldn’t afford to feel this way.that much was obvious since he was still in one piece. The true warrior was a creature of discipline. “Erebus? Are you all right? Are you…you?” Kat’s voice. What had changed in his relationship with this girl? Emotions he had thought long dead had returned from their restless sleep to tear at him with their dirty talons. and invulnerable. Erebus was uncomfortably aware of another emotion swirling within him: a powerful surge of relief and thankfulness at finding her unhurt. worried but pain-free. frank astonishment twisting his normally impassive features as he saw that she was unharmed. He had spent lifetimes building armor against the world. undistracted by the weak emotions. She had stayed? How could she possibly have survived the parasite’s hunger? The knights may have been unable to see her clearly. Erebus stood. mired in confusion. How had she survived the Vampire’s bloodlust? Even at full flight her chances of survival would have been slim. Flowing easily and smoothly to his feet. Erebus suddenly froze as he felt the tentative touch of a slim hand on his back. How had she done it? Through his astonishment. and Erebus had reverted to his human form. relishing the feeling of his powerful muscles flexing and bunching at his command once again. Erebus turned and regarded his ward. made Erebus’ eyes widen in disbelief. Levering himself up on hands and knees. and staying in the clearing with the beast was nothing less than suicide.
He suddenly knew with a cold certainty that he could not allow her to be injured. even from the very gods themselves. though heavily muscled. 104 .ultimately brought only pain. then with curiosity. Even his crushed face had healed when Erebus had transformed. and noticed for the first time that his torso was bare. Erebus came back to the present with a start. wither. and his torso. He would protect her. Looking around. drawing him from his memories. first with uncertainty. He wore nothing save the badly torn remnants of black pants. leaving the skin stretched tight over the sinew and bone. Kat studied Erebus. and finally shrivel to dust as he watched from his place of eternal twilight. Yet this mere child. with his final death if necessary. a mortal girl who would age. studying something deep within himself. It looked like an old stab wound. so why not the scar? Shrugging aside the mystery. regenerated wounds received in battle. The fighter’s eyes were flat and vacant. he saw the pieces of his armor scattered across the clearing. Something about that scar nagged at Kat’s mind. but why had it not healed? Vampires. The puckered skin around the wound seemed to have a faint greenish tinge that showed clearly against the otherwise pallid flesh. was incredibly lean. Kat gently placed her hand on Erebus’ wide shoulder. A cruel scar just under his chest traced a jagged path between the slats of the ribs high on his left side. it hardly mattered at the moment. had freed these wraiths from their crypts. like Trolls. as though they were turned inward. as though the underlying flesh had been stripped away.
Through the sheer burning power of his wrath.Gently he ran a finger along the scar that carved its familiar path across his ribcage. holding 105 . it mattered not. He had dragged himself to his feet. he had screamed into the darkness that rose up to claim him. He had died that day. The creature had drawn for a sword from the air. the terrible coldness of the tempered steel as it violated his body. The pain had been beyond agony. AND TO DAMN YOURSELF IN THE DOING. He remembered that scar. demanding the power to avenge himself upon his slayer. but his story had not ended there. It had been a long time since last he’d looked upon it: the end of one life and the start of another. Powers of the Light or the Dark. A shadowy being cloaked in black fire. slain by the hand of one he’d thought to be a friend. He remembered the sword slipping into him with such horrible ease. POWER YOU WISH. it could not be borne and yet. the memory of the creature that had answered his cry as clear and sharp as when he had first seen it. slamming the cruel steel deep into the wound left by his friend’s sword. AND POWER YOU SHALL HAVE. And he had been heard. It had spoken to him in a voice of echoing power: a voice that shook the earth and rippled the air. not caring who or what heard his call. impossible to make out clearly. a sword of living darkness and poisonous green fire. His fury had refused to die. so many centuries ago. when Erebus had finally managed to pull the sword from himself with shaking fingers. Erebus shuddered. fighting the pull of the Void. and plunged the murderous blade into Erebus’ chest. Raging. he was flooded with strength such as he had never known. THE POWER TO DESTROY YOUR FOES. for which he had been extremely grateful. his spirit had remained with his cooling corpse.
existing between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. and allowed the armor to be shed quickly – a lifesaving ability when one fell into deep water or faced mages that could cause metal to burn red hot. and the armor had disengaged 106 . the leather straps had merely pulled apart. A specific twist of the body caused the straps to separate. Shaking himself free of the grasp of his memories.the black sword like a crutch. The sword had remained with him as he wandered. resignation. with no reason to live but unable to die. purposeless. to be replaced with sorrow and. and found himself alone. and would never accidentally release in combat. Apparently the transformation of his body had triggered the buckles. He had slain many that first night. through a world of shadows and ghosts. had slain him with that hellish sword. He had slain his traitorous friend that same night. The sword and the scar alone had remained unchanged throughout the countless years. a relic from his days as a member of the elite mercenary company known as the Crimson Dawn. had custom buckles that were designed to release under strain. The cunningly crafted buckles had been made by an old dwarven member of the band. his rage had calmed. and he was determined to bring it to them. Few had escaped his wrath and the glorious surge of power that each death brought. at last. He was a damned soul. There were so many who deserved death. but his death alone wasn’t enough. Erebus took stock of the situation. and many more the next night and the more the next. Eventually. A quick examination revealed that his armor was undamaged. The armor.
and she suddenly realized something: this was the first time Erebus had called her by name. Silently calling the Alazon to him.without damage. miraculously untouched by the chaos of battle. Katrina. despite her best efforts and exhaustion. The night is still young. the giant sword settling into his hand as he moved. I will guard you through the night. Erebus strode to the edge of the clearing. sleep eluded her. Did the use of her name signify that she had broken through his shell of apathy and indifference. The night had fallen in full. Still. the entire battle had taken just a few hours. but dawn was still a long ways off. Judging by the position of the stars. still standing uncertainly next to where he had lain. The events and revelations of that night swirled about her mind. Quickly gathering the pieces of his armor into a pile in the center of the disheveled camp. Rest easy.” Smiling wearily. 107 . and we have a large task ahead of us. and lay down. Kat moved to her bedroll. or was it merely coincidence? And what did it mean if she had? Her thoughts still roiling in turmoil. Erebus looked up at the night sky. Something had changed in her relationship with the cold fighter. I sense that the greatest challenge is yet to come. “I suggest you get some sleep. Shouldering the blade. Later he would take the time to reassemble it. Kat’s green eyes slid slowly closed and she slept. the warrior looked to Kat.
He had to know who these mighty foes were. and what weaknesses or flaws they possessed. deep in thought. unleashing his magic in full as soon as he had arrived. 108 . Who knew what powerful magical items they carried to help them in their task. silent figures in his scrying crystal. If these two were powerful enough to defeat both of his elite warriors in their magic canceling armor. the dark warrior was a vampire. Now. Kalkamar’s expression turned grim. Once he knew of the extent of their power. He had planned to magically transport himself directly into their camp. That certainly helped explain the destruction of his demon knights. they served. Perhaps they could even be made to serve his own purposes. they were not foes to be taken lightly. Tapping his bony chin with a decaying finger. The lich released the teleportation spell he had been holding ready in his mind. what forces. such an act didn’t seem prudent. Kalkamar paced back and forth across the slowly collapsing chamber. he could better prepare to deal with them.CHAPTER 10 Kalkamar’s glowing eyes seemed thoughtful as he studied the tiny. So. and laying waste to these insects that had dared to stand against him. These two might even be the servants of another Seeker. however. More information was needed before he made any move that could reveal him to watching enemies. sent out to acquire the pieces of the artifact as his minions had been.
mentally kicking herself for sleeping in. Climbing quickly to her feet she surveyed the camp. She had almost been able to convince herself that the nightmarish struggle last night had been a terrible dream. Kat’s gaze came to rest at last on the dark pile of Erebus’ armor huddled near the center of the clearing. Kat glared down at the pile of thick steel. Moving around the depressions warily. to predict and anticipate their 109 . Kalkamar began casting his Mindtouch spell. The incantation was difficult and lengthy. instead of leaving it for her to deal with. *** The warmth of sunlight on her face made Kat start awake. of the demons there was no sign. A gruesome smile stretched the obscene flesh remaining on Kalkamar’s face. Putting her hands on her hips. Knowledge was indeed power. Erebus could’ve at least had the decency to take his armor with him when he pulled his disappearing act. Both the armor and the corpses had vanished. not surprised to find herself alone. but it should reveal to him everything he needed to know.Raising his hands and visualizing the faces he had seen in his scrying. Thinking about the fighter made Kat’s brow wrinkle in confusion. All that remained were the gigantic imprints of their bodies embedded on the soft turf. He was so hard to read! Part of Kat’s training had been learning to evaluate the people she dealt with. Oddly enough. How was she supposed to transport the heavy armor all the way to Brooksford alone? Moodily she kicked at the black breastplate. Kat shivered as her eye caught the torn and trampled earth: the marks of savage battle.
It was as though there were two different people in the same body. People died for such misplaced faith. but could she trust his word? And even if he were speaking the truth. How could she trust him to guard her back in battle knowing that at any moment he might decide that he was better off without her? And yet. and at worst was a terrible liability. showing her the dangers of overmuch trust given too soon.actions before they made them. That alone was certainly no guarantee of her safety. She couldn’t depend on someone she couldn’t predict. or have her 110 . especially knowing next to nothing about him? His oath to protect her had proven binding. constantly warring for supremacy. Yet still Erebus was an unknown to her. Perhaps that was the most troubling realization of all. and one that Kat had proven especially good at. Trust naturally came slowly to Kat and her training as a thief had only reinforced that. but she had no idea of the limits of such a promise. yet in the next moment. Sometimes she felt nothing but coldness from him. she felt sure that he would fight to the death for her. The dichotomy was baffling at best. It was a lifesaving skill. in spite of the time she had spent with him. What if Erebus had been inside her mind again? He had claimed that the circlet she carried would prevent such an intrusion. an iron certainty that he wouldn’t bat an eye if she were slain then and there. but she had allowed herself to sleep long with an armed and incredibly dangerous warrior by her side all night! How could she have taken such a chance? A cold trickle of dread ran down Kat’s spine as a new and insidious thought wormed its way into her brain. she did trust him. How could she so easily and confidently place her life in his hands. perhaps the item needed to be invoked.
My power is such that I can withstand even the searing light of day. she had felt slight pain as the circlet struggled against him. There was no way to be sure. Kat could do nothing but stare as she mentally groped for purchase. child. Erebus stood watching her as calmly as always despite the sun blazing overhead. “What are you doing here?” A dark eyebrow rose. Feeling the now familiar warm glow in her mind calmed her a bit and her breathing steadied. and Kat found her voice. as promised. as far as she could tell. Perhaps he had gone into her mind and planted this sense of blind security and trust. There are very few things left in this world that can really do me harm. Stunned. circlet still clutched.conscious in order to work. meant that all was fine. At last the thoughts and questions milling about aimlessly in her mind straightened themselves out. as though the action would rattle the circumstances into making some kind of sense. In a sudden panic Kat stuffed a hand into her pocket and pulled out the circlet. “No. A sudden movement from the other side of the clearing broke through her thoughts and spun her about. “Guarding you. The warm feeling. right hand dropping to her sword. Her eyes widened as the shadow of a tree rippled and disgorged Erebus. I am no mere Initiate to be sent in hissing flight from the sun.” 111 . radiating a feeling of quiet menace and overwhelming confidence even without his black armor.” Kat shook her head. forgotten. though I do find it unpleasant. in her left. I am a Master Vampire.” “There is much you don’t know of the Undead. The last time Erebus had intruded. I mean what are you doing out here in the daylight? I thought those of your kind were destroyed by the sun’s touch.
but he’s grinning the whole time. and you’ll need to keep up your strength. tripping over himself and dropping things all over the place. “He really is a good cook. He considers himself a rough. unwrapped the packet and began to eat. shattering the dramatic moment. Kat sat down cross-legged. “Ha! Good old Jerhin! I knew he wouldn’t let me down. He wears this little apron-thing. Kat began to talk. We have a long struggle ahead of us.” Returning to her bedroll.Kat’s stomach chose that time to growl loudly. it seems. she seemed to remember herself and held out one of the biscuits to Erebus. but you should see him when he’s in the kitchen and thinks no one’s looking.” Throwing a wink at her companion. tough warrior. Erebus found he had to ward off a chuckle as he waved the proffered food away. her eyes politely offering above her bulging cheeks. continuing to attack the food as she did so. I think I’ve got some biscuits that Jerhin gave me. As soon as she managed to force the huge quantity of biscuit in her mouth down her throat. and darts from one boiling pot to another and back to peer at his cookbook. “I can bring down a deer easily enough if you desire.” Kat shot him a disgusted look. The place ends up looking like a battlefield. Kat fished about in her pack for a few moments before pulling out a paperwrapped packet and waving it in the air triumphantly. leaning on his blade as he watched her eat. 112 . and Erebus gave a slight smile. Her mouth full with her first ravenous bite. is to find you something to eat. “I’m not eating venison first thing in the morning. thank you very much.” He looked back at the trees ringing the camp. “The first order of business. though he hates to have that particular skill mentioned.
he lowered himself to the ground. made Erebus realize how very empty his life was now. swing from exhilarating highs to the crushing lows. Leaning forward. the raging fury of loss and the gentle caress of love. as she had in the inn. Kat eyed the weapon with curiosity and faint dread. placing his sword within easy reach in front of him. but then. but always feeling something. His life of fire and ice. the iron shield behind his eyes snapping back into place. hesitantly. stretching her fingers toward the dark steel. and the moment was broken. more to give herself something to concentrate on than out of hunger. For a brief moment. sensing. Kat impulsively reached for the blade.” In spite of himself. 113 . his mortal life. As though waking from a dream. Erebus shook himself. Kat took another overly large bite. and gestured for Erebus to have a seat next to her. the awareness of the blade. his great power as empty and meaningless as the shadow of a candle. Erebus saw himself as a truly pitiful thing. Erebus found himself listening intently to Kat’s memories. forever unable to touch the flame. moving from one emotion-filled situation to the next.Always manages to come up with something good in the end too. Such an existence was but a dim and faded image now: a dying sigh barely audible. Such power these experiences had! He could hardly remember a time when his life had been like that. had been. At first it seemed he would refuse. Then Kat’s voice trailed off. As the silence between them lengthened. How very long ago his true life. pleasure and pain. a presence that stared back at her. Hearing Kat talk of routine experiences that somehow still had the power to move her.
though I made a determined effort to learn what I could when it first came to me. I did discover that it is one of a pair of weapons. Erebus’ emotionless.” he shot a quick. Kat asked what the danger was. When she turned toward him. considering this incredible sounding information. matter-of-fact 114 . That sword can only defend and is incapable of spilling innocent blood. It exists to annihilate: that is its only purpose. she was taken aback by the naked anger and fear in his eyes. It is a celestial blade. It is a weapon as powerful as the Alazon. and Erebus looked slightly embarrassed at his outburst. thoughtful look at Kat. A swift blow from his rock-hard right hand knocked hers aside and his left grabbed the sword and pulled it out of reach. It was not meant to exist on this plane at all. unsure what the reaction would be. It is the physical manifestation of hatred and anger: the embodiment of all negative and destructive energy.Erebus’ reaction was immediate and intense. Tentatively. and the manifestation of virtue and honor. As impossible as the tale seemed. It contains a life-force that has bound itself to me. now lying by his side and spoke. Its purpose it to heal and protect. “This weapon was not meant to be wielded by the living. It is an abyssal blade. Apparently mollified. forged in the Heavens. surprised. “You will NEVER touch this blade!” Kat quickly apologized. forged in the deepest pits of the Hells. The blade I carry is the Alazon – the Slayer of Heroes.” He shrugged. The other sword is the Eiron – the Fist of the Champion. “much like that circlet you carry.” Kat was silent for a time. “I don’t know much about it. looking away. known to legend only as the ‘Teeth of Fate’. but its opposite. Erebus glanced at the blade.
his lips compressing into a thin. At last Kat spoke again. hard line. it will be he. There was a difficulty that he hadn’t revealed to Kat. “So. Even if Kat could survive long enough to speak to the elven wizard. it was doubtful that Erebus himself could. then seemed to come to a decision. His fingers went through the practiced motions unconsciously as he thought about the course he had set them on.” Kat jumped to her feet and began packing up her bedroll eagerly as Erebus slowly began to reassemble the buckles on his armor and strap the metal plates into place. One of them. To get Kat into the city and close enough to speak with Ahl-Tor would be no small feat. If anyone knows anything about our little mystery. Ahl-Tor. then we should search for a mage able to tell us more about that trinket you carry. The elves were fanatically isolationist. Elves as a race had a close connection with the natural order. “I need to repair my armor. They tolerated no non-elven beings within their borders and this xenophobic nature had only increased as the race had dwindled under the encroachment of the human and orcish races. was a powerful wizard. especially the Undead. “I have…had…some friends within the Elven court.” He hesitated. “How did you come to possess the Alazon?” Erebus’ mouth snapped shut. Erebus moved toward the pile of his armor. and a burning hatred and disgust for anything unnatural. and even if those barriers lacked the power 115 . Their wards and glyphs would seek his flesh hungrily. and Kat decided to drop the subject. what do you think our next move should be?” Coming easily to his feet. and that crown has a distinctly elven look to it.voice lent credibility to the story. turning instead to a discussion of the mission at hand.
roared through him. Once again arrayed in his heavy black armor. making his limbs shudder uncontrollably as its erratic surges disrupted his mental commands. the armies of angry elves they would summon surely would. the weaker seeming of the two strangers. they strode through the Razorwood in the direction of the elven city of Varadell. Erebus stood and called the Alazon to his hand.to destroy him. Breaking camp. 116 . whatever the price. Answers were needed. CHAPTER 11 Kalkamar reeled backwards as the cold fires of the mindtouch spell he’d cast on the girl.
but something had been waiting for him. Only his experience at mental combat had allowed him to realize what was happening and react quickly enough to twist free before that loop closed. Shaking his head to banish the last echoes of pain. redirecting the tide of damaging energy to where it would do the least harm when he found he couldn’t dam it entirely. stealing into his target’s mind without her even becoming aware of it. she’d have had only moments to act – only seconds to block his entry. hold the link forcibly 117 . empty feeling that flooded through him as they were stripped from his mind. such an escape was near impossible. Such a level of control was unbelievable in one so young! Even had she sensed the connection forming. the lich staggered to a throne carved from a single piece of black stone. locking him forever within its endless spiral. and if she’d been struck unawares. Kalkamar had suddenly felt the contact seized and warped. twisting upon itself to slam back into his mind with vicious force. she’d still have found it exceedingly difficult to break free of such a spell. and sank into it. Kalkamar steepled his bony fingers. Hissing in pain. Even if this woman had somehow known that the intrusion was coming at that exact moment. As his spell established a link between their minds.Fighting back with strength born of desperation. draining its fury away as he surrendered his least precious memories and prepared spells. wincing in spite of himself at the cold. deep in thought. His spell had worked perfectly. Kalkamar at last managed to ride out the flow of twisted spell. the lich hastily erected barriers in his mind. preparing to deluge him with her secrets. an endless loop of his own thoughts splashing turbulently against his mental shields and safeguards.
So it functions just as the legends claim. Kalkamar froze. no human could….” For the circlet to respond so quickly to his spell meant that the woman had already been the target of a previous psychic attack or probe. The floor gleamed as he strode across it. though there were no windows. a lectern surmounted by a thick tome gliding silently from within a hereto concealed alcove and floating majestically across the chamber to settle to the floor in front of him. The darkened room slowly brightened until it seemed to be awash in the light of the setting sun. His ghoulish figure made even more macabre than usual by that bloody glow. A slow smile that held no warmth creeping across his rotting face. Her mind was closed to him. As the Undead wizard crossed that softly glowing barrier. The lich found the spell he 118 . this is the thief who stole the circlet from Garadel’s keeping! She possesses it yet. and whether she knows it or not. The circlet learned from past encounters and would be on guard against further assaults of the same type. Kalkamar crooked a finger. Stepping through the powerful and many-layered wards that kept the weight of years and creeping rot at bay. it guards her from mental domination and magical attacks. a solid and glossy black unbroken by cracks or seams of tile save in the middle of the chamber where an elaborate tracery of inlaid gold runes formed a shining circle. an explanation suddenly occurring to him. and survived. faint radiances awoke along the walls as other runes inscribed on the dark stone responded to his presence.open. With a shrug. he entered a room that seemed as though it were newly built. Kalkamar rose from his chair and strode purposefully across the room to the door of his casting chamber. modify his own spell and send it back upon him! It was impossible. “The circlet! Of course.
for your memories are likely uncertain at best. Truth be told. I am surprised to see you awake this soon. Meeting Sabre’s wondering gaze. until recently. You have been unconscious for many hours. “What are you doing? Why are you helping me?” A brief flash of the usual fire returned to Sabre’s glassy eyes and his body shuddered as it tried to find 119 . the shock to your system was severe. *** Sabre slowly opened his heavy eyes and found himself staring up at a sky darkening into night. Allow me to introduce myself again. elven battle-mage and. When his vision steadied. CorTarain paused politely and leaned forward to listen as the cat-warrior’s voice hissed weakly from his mouth. the elf inclined his head slightly and raised his empty hands in a gesture of peace. and I didn’t have the magics to relieve your pain. summoned the necessary components to him with a muttered word and a gesture.” Seeing Sabre open his mouth to speak. A cool breeze sighed through the long grass and ruffled his fur. caught in a fever-dream. In addition to your wounds.was looking for. raised his arms and began speaking heavy. The time had come to end this. and the first pinprick stars appeared faintly in the sky’s great dome. and welcome back to the world of the living. “Greetings warrior. slithering words that seemed to echo back from the walls rather louder than they should have. A slight motion by his side made Sabre turn his head: the action causing the world blur and swim. your sworn foe. he saw the elf he’d battled so fiercely sitting by his side watching him intently with piercing blue eyes. I am CorTarain.
the strength to stand. “I shall not be your mind-slave, elf. You shall not experiment on me!” Sitting back, his handsome face creased in a frown, Cor-Tarain shook his head in rueful wonder. “Fear not, warrior. It is my intention neither to enslave, nor experiment. By the Sylvanthee, how did we mages acquire this sinister reputation? To answer your question, I am helping you because by doing so I can help my own people. There is a danger close by unlike anything I have ever felt. The very air trembles with it.” He shook his head, a look of sorrow and selfrecrimination passing across his face. “I should have sensed it earlier, but I was myopically focused on you. I was a fool, and living creatures have paid for my foolishness with their lives.” His gaze flitted briefly to the corpse of his giant eagle, Stormshadow, a dark shape sprawled in the grass, and swallowed the sudden lump in his throat before turning back to pin Sabre again with his starbright eyes. “You know of the Thing of which I speak. You have encountered it before, as your burned flesh and reaction to its display shows. I wish to learn of your experience, so that perhaps I can discover its nature and how to defeat it. Surely it is a creature of destruction, and possessed of fearsome might. I know of no mortal wizard who could bring to heel such massive amounts of power, much less one who would waste such power on a mere show of force.” Emerald eyes held sapphire ones for many minutes, neither blinking, until finally Sabre spoke, challenge flashing in his voice. “Help me up.” About to argue but thinking better of it, CorTarain merely inclined his head in a nod and sprang gracefully to his feet, reaching down and gently but firmly pulling Sabre upright.
The young warrior staggered, leaning on CorTarain’s shoulder for support as he tried to still the quiver in his legs. Cor-Tarain waited patiently, wincing to himself as he saw the full extent of the feline fighter’s wounds. The warrior’s back was little more than a weeping sore of blistered flesh, and portions of his shoulders and thighs were blackened and charred, crackling as he moved. It was astounding that he had been able to walk all the way from his tribe’s distant territory in such a condition, much less battle as he had. At last feeling that there was at least a chance that he wouldn’t embarrass himself by collapsing on his face, Sabre released his grip on Cor-Tarain and turned to face his unexpected ally, honor demanding that charity be returned in kind. “My thanks for your assistance, elf. My name is Sabre Thunderspear, and I am a warrior of the Windsong Clan.” Cor-Tarain bowed slightly in response. “Well met Sabre. You have recovered faster than I would have believed possible.” He gestured for Sabre to have a seat on the ground but the warrior remained motionless, staring at him levelly, though his muscles trembled with weakness. Smiling as though he had not noticed Sabre’s reaction, Cor-Tarain smoothly lowered himself to the ground and yielded physical superiority to the feline warrior, sensing that he was still suspicious and needed to feel in control of the situation. Still, though his smile was relaxed and friendly, Cor-Tarain rubbed his thumb repeatedly over the silver ring on the third finger of his right hand. He didn’t trust this barbarian, though his respect for the
fighter was growing. If Sabre made any aggressive moves, Cor-Tarain fully intended to blast him apart. Sabre blinked in surprise as the elf seated himself on the grassy ground, leaving Sabre in the dominant position. Such trust was hard to believe, since Sabre could now easily slay him before he could regain his feet. Still, Sabre was grateful for the excuse to sit back down, since his legs shook with weakness, and he lowered himself to the ground with rather more haste than dignity. Inclining his head gravely, for all the world as though they were seated in a formal hall rather than in the middle of a prairie, Cor-Tarain gestured toward Sabre. “Do you feel that you possess the strength to tell me of your encounter with the creator of that fire column?” Sabre nodded slowly, his eyes glazing slightly as the hideous events once again unfolded before his mind’s gaze. He spoke calmly as he watched the carnage; feeling this time removed, as though sharing his pain with another somehow dulled its razor edge. Cor-Tarain sat silently and listened, his sharp blue eyes softening with sympathy as he sensed the raised and bloody scars just beneath the softly spoken words. At last the young warrior’s narrative trailed off and he suddenly looked very young and unsure, the fingers of his right hand twisting on the leather-wrapped hilt of the scimitar that was once more belted around his waist. Cor-Tarain shook his head, puzzling through Sabre’s strange story. “Truly it is amazing that you survived. For all that we elves dislike your race, we do have respect for your fighting prowess. Any creature that is capable of destroying an entire tribe of such warriors is certainly to be feared.”
Survivor’s guilt. strong and fearless to the last.Despite the pain of the memory. He had heard of this before. the internal conflict so fierce the elf could feel it. it was called – the feeling of worthlessness and shame that came of having lived when others around you had died. and saved himself while his family died around him. and he was proud to be one of them. He was not worthy to call himself a warrior of that or any clan. There was nothing he could do. He was not one of them. Sabre’s lean chest swelled with pride. Quick on the heels of pride. Either he would conquer his fears and doubts. his family. came the guilt. but that was small consolation. as the feline warrior battled whatever demons raged within him. He was a coward. He had run from battle. Before Duty was Honor. however. and he had sacrificed his upon the altar of selfpreservation. terrified by a strong opponent. Cor-Tarain watched. Sometimes it became so strong that the person in question was ashamed to go on living and killed himself rather than continue to survive. His clan. silent. roaring like a blaze within his companion. This was something that Sabre had to face and battle himself. 123 . had been mighty fighters. He had been ordered to flee. or they would conquer him.
The beast would be little use within the close growing trees ahead. Undoing the tack and securing the horse to a nearby tree as swiftly as possible. Bear?” The voice. Beardemir 124 . coming suddenly from the air by his right ear. That grin faded before Beardemir’s glower. and the man held up his hands in a half mocking gesture of surrender. adjusting the battle-axe strapped across his broad back. made Beardemir start with surprise. Beardemir squinted at the forest suspiciously as he reined in his horse and dismounted. “What is it. a growl rumbling from his throat as he spun to face the grinning man beside him. and the air smelled strongly of woodsmoke. The fog that normally swirled ghostlike around the dusky trees seemed even thicker and darker than usual. Beardemir turned and regarded the dark forest once more.CHAPTER 12 The Mistwood was living up to its name this day.
remembering that they were in the middle of a deserted road. a wounded expression on his thin. Feeling nothing. Clenching his teeth. Darrin! By the gods. but the steely look in Beardemir’s dark eyes quelled his tongue and told him that the time for jesting was done. Bear had made the switch from boisterous drinker and wencher to battle-scarred 125 . and that we’ve just alerted everyone and everything in the area that we’re here?” Darrin started to reply with his typical flippant attitude. in front of a strangely silent forest. rodent-like face. “Must I remind you. and in the perfect position to be ambushed. “Don’t be sneaking up on me. Beardemir reached under his chain mail hauberk and felt for the small leather pouch that contained his paltry sum of gold coins.” he asked. “I didn’t sneak up on you. his voice a low rumble. who now stood a safe distance away absently tossing a small bag up and down in one slim hand. or around? Why. with all the thieves on the roads these days and your astounding level of obliviousness.” Beardemir started to roar.drew his axe and shook its double-bited head at his sneaky companion to punctuate his words. you’ll catch a blade or six in your guts if you keep startling folk!” Darrin shook his head. he snatched the pouch from Darrin’s hand and stuffed it back under his armor. Bear. it’s a miracle you haven’t had every last coin stolen!” Suspicious of Darrin’s smirk. but caught himself. Can I help it if you’re so focused on the path ahead that you pay no mind to what’s behind. “that we’ve been hired by Lord Darssus himself to find out what’s been destroying the woodlands hereabouts? Must I further mention that we’re about to enter a dark and suspiciously empty looking forest. “Darrin. he turned his glower once more on his roguish companion.
Right now he longed to sight a foe he could lash out against. and it’d be him if he weren’t careful. barely visible through the smoky air. leaving an arrow-straight line of destruction behind. Now. As his quick eyes scanned the lifeless seeming forest around him.mercenary. Darrin focused on the path ahead. For this 126 . and Darrin and Bear had been the first to answer. weaving carefully around the still smoldering trees. because they possessed an almost uncanny ability to read each other’s minds and fight as though they were one person. In battle together they were a force few could match. Darrin sensed Beardemir’s increasing nervousness. Beardemir didn’t do well in tense situations. The situation had seemed almost too good to be true at the time: someone or something had been marching through the lord’s lands. complimenting each other’s strengths and covering the weaknesses. two hardened mercenaries who had fought both with and against each other in too many wars to recall. Darrin moved toward the forest with Beardemir following close behind. He and Beardemir were friends and brothers-in-arms. Baron Jarvinn Darssus had put out the call for mercenaries just days ago. all trace of humor and lethargy gone. something tangible with which to battle. Darssus wanted some fighters to intercept the creature responsible and bring it down. Nodding solemnly. though they looked as different as night and day. much preferring open combat to playing the waiting game. Many they met mistook them for brothers. Pushing Bear’s anxiety from his mind. could picture the giant warrior’s gnarled hands twisting white-knuckled on the rough leather grip of his axe. Someone was about to die. Darrin pondered the events that had brought him to this disturbing place.
his blank look disappearing for a moment as his face contorted in sudden.service he was willing to pay the handsome sum of five hundred gold pieces. Darrin stopped and stared. the knives beginning their ready twirl around his slim fingers. Being down to their last few coins. Darrin stepped soundlessly forward. and had every confidence of being able to do it again. Bear and Darrin had been in no position to refuse. Just ahead. and seen firsthand the massive destruction – near total annihilation of everything from the largest tree to the smallest shrub – they had begun to wonder. and sitting in the cool shade of the local inn. The noise was repeated. The stone began to glow softly. Once they had arrived on the creature’s trail however. 127 . and Darrin’s knives dropped unheeded from his trembling fingers as a sudden. Without hesitation. a gigantic ruby lay on a pile of black and gray ash. intense pain. A slight noise to Darrin’s right spun him around. it sounded like a long. drawn-out sigh. in a clearing formed through the incineration of the surrounding growth. Darrin reached out and grasped the faintly glowing stone. something that looked suspiciously like a charred and misshapen skull crumbled silently to dust. it seemed likely that the “creature” responsible was merely some crazed mage with more guts than sense. They had slain such before. Pushing his way between the seared trunks of two close set oaks. trying to comprehend the unusual sight before him. As the mercenary bent down to peer closer at the stone. twin longknives appearing as though by magic in his hands. urgent longing rose with within him.
I don’t do so well as you in tight squeezes. you daft idiot. flaming eyes. With a heartfelt curse. you know.” Peering ahead through the trees. “Darrin? Dar. Gingerly stepping around to face him squarely. Beardemir knelt and squinted into his friend’s face. 128 . Snarling like a maddened beast. Beardemir was seized with sudden terror.Beardemir struggled to free himself and his axe from the stubborn grasp of the foliage. and called out to Darrin as loudly as he dared. Beardemir caught sight of Darrin down on one knee and holding something in one hand. don’t go getting too far ahead. Moments later a terrible burning pain enveloped Beardemir’s body. and even before the eyelids rose to reveal the horrid. a wistful smile growing on its face as it examined its new body. Bear knew that his friend was alive no longer. he abandoned stealth and smashed fiercely through the dead and brittle wood to come panting to Darrin’s side. are you alright man?” The lowered face suddenly lifted. and he charged forward like a bull. Decades of battlefield training quickly converted Beardemir’s rising terror into rage. Still the man didn’t move. his huge axe raised high overhead. His opponent glanced at him. Snarling. Beardemir lurched to his feet and backed away as the thing that had been his friend slowly stood and stretched. “Dar. a glow that was echoed in his inhuman eyes. Though the figure neither moved nor spoke. Bear hacked futilely at the swirling flames that surrounded him as they hungrily consumed his flesh. his body arched in a position of frozen agony. and Bear saw a brief flare deep within the gem clutched in Darrin’s right hand.
disoriented and separated from her allies. the surge of energy would collapse his web. Kalkamar gave a satisfied nod.That soft smile remained on Flame’s lips as the fires slowly died to nothing. but once caught within his web. the second of his layered spells would take effect. triggering its myriad effects and guiding them down upon its bearer. The complicated casting of the web had consumed several hours and drained him of a good deal of his strength. The lich smiled to himself. it would function much like the net it so resembled. He would rest for 129 . since its very presence would shield her from any direct attack by his spells. then headed for the door and the casket beyond. their white glow intensifying slightly as Kalkamar added the final touch to his waiting spell web: attuning the triggering conditions to the distant but unmistakable signature of the now dormant circlet. she would be helpless and he could discern the proper method at leisure. once the spell lattice was activated. the blackened. *** The mighty enchantment was at last complete. melted head of a double-bited battle-axe crumbled silently into ash and drifted away on the breeze. Eyeing his handiwork. Faintly humming strands of magical energy hung motionless in the air above the casting circle. ensnaring the girl and transporting her precipitously to Bloodfever Swamp. Once the artifact’s warding powers were activated again. Without a backward glance. preventing her from leaving or anyone else from coming to her aid. When she arrived. All was as it should be. the shell of Darrin strode easily away through the charred trees. He wasn’t yet sure how to wrest the circlet from her. Behind him.
the cloak of darkness he had summoned to shield him from the light wavering and collapsing into wisps of shadow. CHAPTER 13 Kat blinked in surprise as her next step brought her from the cool shadows of the Razorwood into the glare of the sun. He looked… different in the light. he staggered back. The forest ended as though cut by a knife. Erebus squinted his sensitive eyes against the light. feeling his strength fade as his vampiric powers gathered to resist the sun’s assault. He seemed a little less awesome and intimidating. Walking to the right and slightly behind her. and before her a massive prairie stretched endlessly to the horizon. The circlet would be in his hands before long. Abruptly caught in the sun’s full embrace. Quickly rallying his energies. Kat suppressed a smile at the rather sour expression on Erebus’ face.a time and gather his power for the battle ahead. Looking back. and Kat found herself slipping more easily into conversation. Kalkamar paused and glanced at the serenely humming lines of power throbbing above him. His hand reaching out for the door. his blinded eyes feeling afire inside their sockets and his pale skin shrieking its pain to his raw nerves. “Tell me about the Undead. Erebus momentarily lost his concentration. more human and less like the cast-iron warrior he had appeared before. Erebus narrowed his 130 .” Startled.
Erebus slowly straightened. then turned away quickly. a little more knowledge seems prudent. Since I’ve already had several close encounters with the supernatural. Erebus paused for several breaths before asking. reinforcing his flickering strength. Kat stared out over the prairie ahead. All I know is information I’ve gleaned from fireside tales and fright-stories. information is life.” She shot a sideways glance at him. it still seared him like fire. feeling the shadows slide like cool silk soothingly over his pained flesh.” 131 . “What?” Making an obvious effort to avoid his chilling gaze. The Alazon assisted him. knowledge is power. A single mistake or false conclusion can be fatal. including a hungry and seemingly mindless vampire.” Taken aback by the frank truthfulness of her words. “In my business. Erebus responded through clenched teeth. “Why?” Kat shot him another look. Turning a baleful gaze on Kat. “Obviously many of the things I thought I knew are false. Despite what he had told Kat about being immune to the sun’s touch. I’d like to correct my other misconceptions. as his lesser kin would be. At last free of the sun’s cruel grip. this one dangerously close to a smirk. Even though he was too powerful to be fully destroyed by the daylight.concentration past the point where physical pain could reach him and focused on re-establishing his protective barrier. he was finding that it was one thing to resist sunlight filtered through a thick forest canopy and quite another to battle it at full force. dark power funneling outward along their shared link. You’re hardly the monstrous blood-sucking parasite I imagined. More than that. “What you said back in the wood about my lack of knowledge of the Undead is true enough.
He had never spoken so frankly to her before. he began to speak. With something that sounded suspiciously like a resigned sigh. “Those who either manage or are forced to step beyond death’s grasp and become Undead are faced with a world they no longer know.” He sneered. vampires drinking blood. The crowds of grieving friends become torch carrying mobs. and the sight of a father’s ghost upon the stairs becomes a terrifying experience. and she was encouraged by the glimpse she’d gotten of the man he had been before he had forged this armor for himself. when his reduced intellect had fixated on Kat as prey. Her companion knew of this with all too painful clarity.” Kat dared to interrupt. staring off into the distance at something only he could see. It was the best way to keep her safe. playing devil’s advocate in hopes of drawing Erebus further from his shell.” He shook his head derisively. “Death changes nothing. They fear it. “Why then are all the tales of the Undead horrific? Wraiths possessing bodies. but Kat felt a profound sadness buried deep beneath his words. not missing the reference to his transformation. A person’s mind and soul are still the same as they were when the flesh was warm and the heart was beating. and seem to think the essence of a person changes after they pass beyond the veil. Those whom once they loved and admired now become fearsome beings of murder and hatred.” 132 . All that has changed is the manner of existence. “Mortals have peculiar notions about death. ghouls devouring children…. stinking of fear and determined to rid the world of your taint. she deserved to know what she was dealing with. He knew she was right.Erebus winced. Families fear the return of deceased loved ones.
Erebus looked at her silently a moment, the only sound the swish of the dry prairie grass parting before them and crunching underfoot. At last, when she had begun to fear that she had accomplished the opposite of her goal, he spoke. “Have you ever wondered at those tales, child? Ever wondered why it seems that vampires prey on the blood of humans, when that of deer would serve as well?” Even as Kat opened her mouth to answer, he raised a hand for silence. “It is a human conceit that only their blood will suffice. Only human veins contain the elixir of life, humming with the spark of the divine.” He looked at Kat again, pinning her beneath his intense stare. “It is jealousy, not necessity, which drives the Undead to prey upon their living counterparts. It is time, not the Change, which twists the mind with madness. Vampires and other intelligent Undead creatures do indeed often slaughter humans, even when such grossly unnecessary bloodshed draws lethal attention to them. Such behavior is self destructive, for no single creature, no matter how powerful, can withstand the collective might of an aroused society. Stealth and cunning are our best defenses against a world that seeks our destruction, yet so few manage to resist the temptation to unleash their wild rage and die in a maelstrom of blood and fury. The ones who do succeed, do so in large part through isolation. The oldest, most powerful mummies, vampires, and liches lurk in forgotten tombs and ancient keeps scattered throughout the wilderness, far from the sprawling cities and throbbing masses of blissful humanity.” Kat spoke up again, her voice subdued. “You said that jealousy drives them. How is it that immortal creatures with powers beyond imagination could be envious of our pitiful, mayfly existence?”
A humorless smile carved its way across Erebus’ marble face. “You have just answered your own question. You know nothing of immortality, child. You cannot comprehend the weight of ages, one atop the next, piling upon you, crushing you within their terrible embrace. You watch as all those you knew pass you by, parents, friends, lovers, children, grandchildren, all of your descendants fade to dust before your unchanging eyes until your very name is lost to history. You find yourself walking through a world that you no longer recognize, and all the places and nations you took for granted as unchanging warp and shift around you. As you see the same atrocities committed in the names of the same ideals as in the past, you lose your hope that some good came from those past crimes, because at least humanity learned its lesson. You come to understand that even as everything changes, nothing does. The names of the players alter, but the actions never do. “ He studied her unblinkingly for a time before turning away. “When hope dies, sanity quickly follows. Immortality becomes first a burden, then a sorrow, then finally a plague. The final death that they once sacrificed everything to avoid now becomes longed for, but the fear still remains, perhaps stronger than ever. What fate awaits such a one beyond the final curtain? We who have witnessed firsthand the frailty and impermanence of nobility, and the pervasive eternity of evil, find ourselves sure to be judged among the latter. Are the punishments of damnation in the Abyss worse than the twilight eternity of watching the mortal world of dreams and illusion crumble about you? It cannot be known, so most remain firmly attached to the pain they know, hating their existence and insane with envy of the ignorant bliss in which mortals live and die. This is the reason that humans
suffer so at the hands of we, the gods of the night. We, mighty and powerful, envied by fools and feared by all, rain suffering and death upon those unfortunates who cross our paths, yet even as their eyes glaze in the final agony, they mock our helplessness and so increase our rage.” Erebus’ voice trailed off, and for many minutes Kat kept walking, mired in her nightmarish thoughts and oblivious to the fact that he was no longer by her side. At last it dawned on her that she was alone. Looking around, she saw Erebus standing motionless and peering intently off to the left. Grimly pushing away her dark thoughts, fingers unconsciously flexing about the hilt of her shortsword, Kat slipped next to him and stared in the same direction, though she didn’t see what had caught his attention. Without moving his eyes, Erebus spoke, his voice once again cold and flat. “There are two figures several miles distant. One appears to be elven, the race of the other I cannot discern. I suggest that we slip around them unnoticed. An encounter with an elf at this stage is ill advised.” Kat squinted into the distance, still unable to make out anything but the endless grasses waving in the breeze. Erebus’ eyes must be sharp indeed, despite the glare of the sun. Her whole body tingled with the thrill of actually meeting a full-blooded elf. She had always wondered about the elven half of her heritage, the history of her unknown mother. Here at last she was about to come face to face with a member of that mysterious and legendary race. She dismissed Erebus’ concerns without a second thought, never stopping to wonder why he was hesitant about encountering a member of the people whose help they sought. “No, if we introduce ourselves, perhaps he can lead us to Varadell. It will be easier to get an
Come. and a grim expression on his face. It was a female. he was certain he could slay a single elf easily enough. It was the smell of death and yet. *** Exhausted as he was. A shift in the ever-present wind brought to his nostrils strange scents: two creatures were approaching from the west. as had the soldiers from years ago. Erebus strode after the now distant Kat. Sabre lifted his muzzle slightly and tasted the air. not he. however. Sabre smelled life: the pleasant musk of youth and the vibrant sexual energy of a young woman. This one’s scent made Sabre bare his teeth in an unconscious expression of revulsion.” Without waiting for a reply. But there was another being present. Erebus watched her go.audience with Ahl-Tor if we are escorted in by an elf. it was different from the natural smell of decaying corpses. Sabre remembered that smell from the brief skirmishes against human soldiers that his tribe had fought from time to time. Instead. let’s join them. The black sword throbbing in his hand as though sensing the prospect of battle and bloodshed. that 136 . and didn’t stink of blood and battle. She was in command. Sabre’s acute senses remained alert. There was something…wrong. One of the two was human. anger and concern roiling within him. Kat started forward. though his face remained a frozen mask. if things went as badly as he suspected they would. Behind her. At last he shrugged and followed. nearly skipping with excitement. young. There was something different about this human’s smell. It wasn’t his decision to make and.
was it. The smell of wrongness filled the air as the creature approached. “What is it?” Sabre opened his eyes and focused on CorTarain standing across from him. He was about to ask how it was that the elf did not smell the approaching pair, then remembered that elves lacked the refined senses of his people. Instead, he pointed to the west and simply said, “there are two creatures approaching. A human female and something else, something I cannot identify.” Turning in the direction indicated, Cor-Tarain stared hard at the faint line of the horizon, his keen eyes piercing the distance to make out the hazy outlines of a pair of figures. It was hard to judge how far away they were, the prairie distorted distances strangely, but he guessed they would be within hailing distance in a matter of hours. It would be best to prepare some defenses in case the visit was not a friendly one. *** Kat studied the two beings as she and Erebus approached. One was an elf, robed and imposing, watching her calmly with eyes the color and warmth of ice. He stood slightly taller than her five feet and was fine boned, probably weighing little more than she did. The elaborate robes he wore, though smudged with dirt, marked him as a mage, and he held a staff that sparked and glowed with stored power. The creature that stood next to him was of a species Kat had never seen before. He was humanoid, standing upright and grasping a long, curved sword in his right hand, but there the similarity to a human ended. He wore nothing save a
loincloth and a cuff of some golden metal clasped around one wrist, and Kat could see that his whole body was covered with the sleek tawny fur of a forest cat. His eyes, as they met her own, were a shocking emerald color and sported the vertical slit pupils common to felines. As she drew closer, he raised his muzzle slightly and scented the air, nostrils flaring. Despite his strangeness, Kat recognized the distinct signs of an experienced warrior. He moved with the grace and natural balance of a dancer, and held his sword with the easy comfort of long familiarity. As she and Erebus approached, the elf’s eyes suddenly widened and his handsome features twisted in an expression of horror and disgust. Confused, Kat looked behind her, half expecting to see some horrendous beast about to spring. Instead she saw Erebus, his massive sword at ease on his armored shoulder and a coldly expectant look on his face. Turning back to the elf, Kat was startled to find herself facing the leveled staff. She came to a halt, holding out her empty hands in a gesture of peace. “We mean you no harm. We just want to talk.” The elf sneered at her as the glowing nimbus around the staff intensified. “I do not bandy words with abominations!” Kat was diving aside even as the staff discharged, but she knew that she wasn’t going to be able to avoid the blast. The searing bolt of bluish white lightning blew her backward, raising her hair on end and causing the world to dance and waver before her tearing eyes. Staggering back, her hands held uselessly out in front of her, Kat gritted her teeth, bracing herself for the shattering pain that was sure to quickly follow the initial impact. It never came. Her vision clearing, Kat found herself untouched by the bands of lightning that hissed and crackled
viciously around her limbs, twisting into a tight spiral of blinding energy before fading quietly away and leaving her without a mark. In her pocket, she felt the circlet thrumming with power, suddenly seeming very much alive. For a moment everyone froze and turned to stare at Kat. Dumbfounded, she returned their stares, suddenly realizing that something else was happening. *** As the power of the circlet awakened, Kalkamar’s waiting magic activated, the eerily glowing webwork of wizardry collapsing as the series of spells contained within its bands triggered one after another in specific order, weaving themselves around the far away thief. *** Kat started in surprise, staring upward at the small mass of furiously winking lights that had suddenly appeared in the air over her head. Before she could move, a tracery of faint but rapidly thickening bands of color stabbed down from it, encircling her like the bars of a cage. The circlet’s maddened buzzing hadn’t ceased, the crown vibrating wilding within her pocket, the power of the magic surrounding it fueling its frenzy. Unsure of what was happening, Kat reached out toward Erebus, fear snapping in her green eyes. The vampire stared back, helpless, as the bands of color thickened until they met, sealing Kat away behind a swirling, rainbow-hued globe. For a quick breath the globe pulsed there, and then collapsed, sighing away into nothingness and leaving behind a shallow, perfectly round depression in the ground
“Where is she?” Every word struck the trapped elf like a hammer blow. holding a grim promise that a merciful death was not close at hand. the vampire caught the elf around the throat with his left hand and hoisted him into the air with terrible ease. a sweep of the Alazon slicing through the glowing staff in a shower of vermillion sparks. but the Alazon’s backswing caught the weakened fighter in the chest and sent him sprawling. With a snarl of rage. the Alazon deftly held out of the way. who had managed to tremblingly force himself to his knees. Erebus whirled to face the gaping mage. struggling to find breath enough to answer. the resulting concussion throwing him to the ground several paces away. his voice was calm and flat. It wasn’t me!” Contemptuously Erebus dropped the elf to the ground.where earth and grass had been scooped away. Though murder and fury burned within those hellish orbs. Contemptuously ignoring the fallen tiger warrior. locking his gaze with eyes that glowed like cinders from under his lowered black brows. Locking his slim hands around Erebus’ iron-like grip. Of Kat there was no sign. “This was not my doing! She was taken…teleported somewhere. the vampire held him effortlessly aloft. Cor-Tarain had time for one horrified glance down at the half of the sundered staff he still held before its stored magic detonated. Sabre started bravely forward to block Erebus’ path to the weakly writhing elf. Cor-Tarain at last managed to choke out. Heedless of mage’s struggles. staring coldly down at him as he drew in 140 . the scimitar flying from his hand. Bending down. Erebus stalked grimly over to the mage. and he winced with each one.
” Erebus remained silent for a time. The only teleport spell I know is a personal one. “Bring her back. though I don’t have such a spell prepared. “Can you discover where she was taken?” Cor-Tarain considered. his cold expression as changeless as if it were carved from stone.” CHAPTER 14 141 .ragged gasps of air.” Cor-Tarain shook his head. Now. “I can’t. not looking up at the vampire. his narrow shoulders shuddering with each breath. “Perhaps. I could transport myself and a few others to a place I’ve been before. but I can’t just reach out and call a person to me.” Erebus silently gritted his teeth. It will take several hours to study it. “Begin. Such a spell is far beyond my power. though his face and voice betrayed none of his frustration as he gestured to the pile of the mage’s belongings. At length he spoke again.
separated from Erebus. There were no landmarks to guide her. trying to find something that she could use to orient herself. Kat studied the building as the fog swirled around it as though deliberately seeking to cloak the decaying shell from her sight. As though in answer. A thick. Though she didn’t like the look of the decrepit tower. and the way it was muffled by the stagnant air. No matter how thick they grew. it was certainly preferable to spending the darkened 142 . She was on her own. in the midst of foul. and in a land she didn’t recognize. Shrugging. and Kat wondered how it had taken her this long to notice it. The sight was so incongruous that Kat couldn’t restrain a laugh. the sun was sinking and she would have to find shelter for the night. however. Kat peered around her once again. Looking about her. even the watery sunlight was diffused by the mist. dirty fog blanketed the land in all directions. Kat was struck with an intense feeling of disorientation. leaving her standing in a very different place than the one she’d just left. disturbed both by its frantic edge. Frowning. Judging from the reddish hue of the light. an indistinct shape loomed out of the mists in front of her – a ruined tower. as though the silence greedily swallowed the sound. She choked it off quickly. blending earth and sky into an indistinct mass of milky gray. however. seeming to filter through from everywhere and nowhere.Kat blinked in astonishment as the multicolored globe imprisoning her abruptly disappeared. marshy ground that stretched away as far as she could see through the mist. the tower remained quite visible. Trying to fight the sense of panic that surged through her. She stood on a perfect circle of soil and prairie grass. Kat stared at the ground under her soft boots. dismissing the mystery as the least of her worries at the moment. Kat broke off her examination of her surroundings and took stock of her situation.
trying through sheer force of will to pierce the impenetrable darkness around her. Parting the darkness and the mist like a dagger through silk. She had no idea where the tower was. Finally Kat came to a gasping halt. Kat began walking slowly toward the tower. when a light appeared. Kat caught hold of the remnants of her reason with steel talons. After a few steps. fetid air. wrapping her arms about herself to ward off the chill of the damp. As soon as she had managed to slow her rapid heart and gain control of her pained lungs. and she had just resigned herself to spending the night in the open. Moving blindly through the marsh seemed the work of a fool. or how far she had run. as the savage denizens of the marsh stirred with the waning of the day. like a moth drawn to the flame and the inevitable death beyond. Kat increased her pace.hours standing blindly in the open. the dirty air burning her throat and lungs with every breath. The light was dying much faster than she had anticipated. a cold silver radiance shone out from the one remaining window in the hulk of the tower. as though the soggy ground drank in the light. Kat stared around her. sucking grip of the bog with every step. however. 143 . She could barely make out the tower’s outline now. the blocky building merging with the darkness all around until she was stumbling desperately toward a goal she could no longer see. Already she could hear faint noises. forcing her into a spasm of coughing. howls and distant screams. Before she had even realized what she was doing. the building suddenly sharply defined to Kat’s incredulous gaze. Squinting through the darkening. staring at the alluring light through suspicion-narrowed eyes. Kat had begun to walk toward that beacon of light. Shivering. fighting to pull her feet free of the noisome. thickening mist. She came to a halt.
that wasn’t true. her reflexes as sharp and anyone’s. it hardly seemed prudent to go charging blindly in. She could make it through. wondering if the path she had chosen was the right one. staring at the motionless tower like a rabbit at the stalking wolf. and she cast a brief look back. damp air caused Kat to shiver. The tower loomed before her. Better to take her chances alone in the swamp. With a cry of shock. There was no way 144 . The tower. No. was occupied? Even if that were the case. Kat struck out across the marsh. bloodshot and irritated by the caustic air. crumbling hulk that it was. Kat thought with a shudder. but lacking a choice now – she would never be able to stumble her way back in the blackness – Kat turned back to face the way she had been going. As she crested a small mound. the tower had vanished into the distance. Her instincts had been well honed by her time in the thieves’ guild. and this quagmire had to end somewhere. All she could see were swirling mists and darkness. That same pearly light still leaked from the gaping window. heading away from the strange tower. and the light now shining was the work of an intelligent being and not the deadly glow of ancient sentry magics or the prey-lure of some otherworldly predator. Hesitantly. Kat came to an abrupt stop. Determined. staring at the building with a mixture of fascination and horror. It seemed that nothing had changed. her course decided on. More than just the cold. Firmly Kat turned her back on the tower and its strange light. One thing was different: she was a lot closer than she had been last time. Kat’s resolve weakened momentarily.This was too easy. illuminating the rotting earth immediately surrounding the tower and reflecting from the moist and moldering stones of the wall. her wide green eyes.
slippery with moisture and mold and she drew her arm back. Abruptly they parted. Ahead of her the endless mists swirled. and Kat found herself staring at the now familiar black stones of the tower.that she could have stumbled this close to the tower before seeing it. shuddering with revulsion. after more than an hour of nightmarish running through the swamp. She crested the small rise. eyes narrowed against the terror clawing at her from within. Backing slowly away from the wall. Kat turned around and headed away from the tower once again. Kat dimly heard the door grate open. sibilant words heavy with satisfaction and ageless cruelty. Kat collapsed on the tower’s threshold. she suddenly turned and ran as she never had before. At last. its dry.” 145 . screaming hoarsely as her faltering courage deserted her entirely. Kat reached out with a shaking hand and touched the crumbling wall. Her fingers met rock. Barely conscious of her cheek pressed into the gritty stone pave. and nearly slammed into the wall at top speed. even if she had become so turned around that she had walked straight back the way she had come. The last thing she was aware of before the blackness claimed her was a cold voice speaking. as Kat plowed through them. Kat scrambled madly through the mists. I’ve been expecting you. her heavy eyelids slipping closed. Horrified almost beyond reason. Barely managing to keep her balance as she twisted desperately aside. this time refusing to look back as she crested the small hill and the building dropped out of sight. Her back straight with defiance. too exhausted to flee any more. “Welcome child. thick and seemingly alive. sprinting away from the silent tower as fast as her feet could move in the syrupy muck. hoping against hope that this was an elaborate illusion. inches away from the decaying door.
turning his back to Sabre and facing the vampire squarely. with no hint of menace. glaring at the dark warrior through pain-narrowed eyes. The vampire was teetering on 146 . yet Cor-Tarain could feel the vibration of barely contained murder trembling just beneath the surface of the words. he covertly memorized as many of the powerful battle spells as he could. but if an opportunity presented itself. At last the elf rose to his feet. With a silent and barely perceptible shake of his head.” Erebus’ darkly flaming eyes swung like lowered crossbows to pin Cor-Tarain under their merciless gaze. he would not be caught unprepared.*** Cor-Tarain sat studying his spellbooks in silence. He realized now that to fight the vampire without sufficient time beforehand to prepare his defenses was foolish. “It is done. His mind raced. Even as he made a show of studying the spells associated with location and tracking. “Her name is Kat.” The statement was made softly. casting a concerned glance at Sabre who had recovered from the vampire’s blow and was holding his scimitar threateningly. searching for a way to escape his monstrous captor or manage to alert Varadell to his presence. trying to ignore the vampire looming over him like a pillar of darkness. preferably both. The vampire stared straight back. Cor-Tarain stepped meaningfully between the two fighters. I have the spell ready to track the girl. his face frightening in its perfect lack of expression. Somehow the very blandness of the creature’s face was more terrifying to Cor-Tarain than the screamed threats and spittle-filled howling of the largest orc he’d ever faced.
After they had done so. watching him closely from opposite sides. he began the spell. he threw the dust into the air. CorTarain dropped a pinch of wolf hair then quickly drew a hawk feather through the hairs as they drifted slowly down. Swiftly. pulling at him as though he had become a living magnet. As soon as they touched him. Chanting the words the spell demanded. before the spell had time to coalesce around the caster. and he and Sabre would be free to warn Varadell both of the fire column they had seen. and abruptly Erebus felt a light tugging within him. shouting the final phrase of the spell.the very edge of control. and this newest threat. surrounding him in a cloud of sparkling light. he would find himself facing a force of properly equipped elven soldiers. Immediately the swirling dust gravitated to the vampire. “Inum cabris mobilous Kat!” The dust fell in a glittering shower. So sure was Cor-Tarain of his conclusions that he was completely taken aback when Erebus turned and 147 . He suddenly knew that Kat was at the other end of this compulsion. and if the vampire returned. all he had to do was follow its urging and it would lead him to her. he reached out and touched Erebus’ armored shoulder with the feather. As they landed noiselessly on his sparkling palm. The elves would have time to prepare. Cor-Tarain watched the vampire with a sense of satisfaction. he withdrew a handful of dust that sparkled as he held it in his palm. With a silent nod of acquiesce. Now it would leave to go chasing after the missing girl. the insult of having his companion snatched away right in front of him had left him seething. and CorTarain was suddenly seized with an idea. the dust vanished. From a small pouch hidden within his robes. Cor-Tarain motioned for the two warriors to move back and give him space.
I may have need of your spells again.” “What? What possible use could a wounded fighter be?” Erebus turned and gave a slight smile that didn’t touch his dead eyes. “We will all go. Finally he managed to sputter. for it promised death to both of them. and turned back to Cor-Tarain. Then the moment was gone as though it had never been. moving his mouth silently. powerful magic. The proud feline fighter returned his glare with his lips frozen in a snarl of defiance. as though satisfied. Erebus nodded.motioned brusquely for him to follow.” 148 . “What? Why!?” Erebus looked at him evenly. standing alert and watching the byplay intently. and those eyes were as empty and flat as mirrors once again. and I don’t intend to abandon a tool that might be of use before this is over. we’ve got a long way to go. “Surely. “Kat has been taken to wherever she is by magic. The sight of it chilled Cor-Tarain to the bone.” Grasping at straws. “Bait. you don’t need him! He’s injured and will just slow you down!” Erebus turned with menacing slowness and looked the weakened tiger-warrior coldly up and down.” For several moments Cor-Tarain could only stand in shock. Cor-Tarain gestured weakly at Sabre. and Cor-Tarain could have sworn that for a moment he caught a glimpse of deeply buried laughter reflecting in the vampire’s eyes. wizard. If there was violence. “Come. he obviously was prepared to throw himself into the fray in a desperate gambit for survival.
and the dull pain in her wrists blossomed instantly into a savage fire. she looked blearily around the small room she found herself in.CHAPTER 15 Kat slowly awoke. red spikes of agony shooting down her forearms and biting at the joints. Her body twitched sharply. dimly aware of pain in her wrists and a feeling of tension in her body. Forcing her eyes open. She had been walking with Erebus…they were about to meet a real elf… then…. for a time unable to remember where she was. 149 . and she had to bite her lower lip to suppress a scream of panic. Suddenly the nightmarish time outside in the fog came rushing back.
logic suggested that it was likely in the same dilapidated condition. It was no use.Caught by surprise. Determined not to surrender to the weakness of fear and hopelessness that she could feel clouding her mind. refusing to allow herself to give up. and the movement caused her tender arms to erupt in new agony. the burgeoning terror in her mind cut off by the undeniably real pain in her body. The stones were cracked and decaying. feeling them strike the unseen wall. feet dangling several inches off the uneven floor. Trying to alleviate the gnawing pain in her wrists and elbows. gritting her teeth at the fresh onslaught of pain that would follow on the heels of vigorous movement. jutting outward away from their neighbors and creating small ledges that she might be able to use to support some of her weight. Kat folded her legs up as close beneath her as she could and swung her heels back. forcing her to hang by her arms. hoping to gain enough contact to allow her to take some of the weight off her arms. Kat stretched her toes toward the floor. While the brief contact lasted. she pushed down with her legs. Without hesitation. Turning her attention to the walls of her small prison. Kat found a glimmer of hope. Kat’s head swiveled stiffly on her sore neck until she could see the cause of her pain. was shackled to the stone wall behind her with a rough iron manacle. The irons were attached high on the wall. Kat took a firm grip on the anger and frustration that was never far away. The floor remained stubbornly out of reach despite her best efforts. Each chafed and bruised wrist. crunchy with dried blood. dragging her heels along 150 . There were several places where the blocks had slipped. the mortar between them all but gone. Though she was unable to see the wall against her back.
How she wished Erebus were here! She could almost hear him. the contact with the wall was too brief and tenuous for her to be able to get any kind of sense of where possible outcroppings might be. without a lover. she had already hit them. For all she knew. She’d been captured before. forcing her to rediscover her self reliance. but her feet passed over them so lightly that she’d never know they were there. Had she really dropped so far as to be content to simply rely on others to keep her safe? If so. Kat’s head shot up. a skilled thief and competent fighter who had made her own way for years without a family. It was no good. her tired and bloodshot eyes narrowing with sudden rage. no one would help her. Her eyes slid closed. If she didn’t find a way to escape. Almost she gave up in despair. The fire in her eyes rekindled by the spark of rage. her back and shoulders bore the thin white scars of the lash as testament. Kat gritted her teeth in determination and tried again to brace her feet against the imagined 151 . and certainly without Erebus. hard voice echoing in the damp air. He would be able to rescue her from this…he would…. blocking out the sight of the slime and filth covered floor.the uneven blocks and hoping against hope to have them catch firmly against some outcropping. and she’d never lost her determination or her hope. Her wrists burned with sullen fire from her movement. and she could feel the slight tickle as fresh blood began to flow over the broken skin. than this prison was a blessing in disguise. the rusted chains that mirrored her own hanging limp and unoccupied on the opposite wall. his cold. with hot tears coursing down her grimy cheeks. hanging limply for a moment. Was this what she was reduced to? Whimpering for help like some oft kicked mongrel? She was a strong woman.
She would escape. striding swiftly and confidently through the prairie grass toward the distant line of trees he could see. So why had he let them live? Was it mercy? 152 . The tiger-warrior should have been slain immediately.outcropping on the wall. he’d eventually have to kill them anyway. and sooner rather than later. While his eyes were locked ever forward. Despite his words to the wizard. but he kept them under constant surveillance just the same. the desire and will to battle despite the odds and die in glorious futility. He had a noble streak. *** Erebus walked ahead. particularly the injured fighter. Early in their travel. After all. Behind him came his reluctant allies. his other. keeping close watch on every movement of those behind. The only thing that had stopped him from continuing the fight had been the helplessness of the elven wizard. following the silent urging that pulled him ever onward. he had wondered why he’d brought along his prisoners. who even now was struggling to match the furious pace he’d set. and it began with this. The day he was forced to rely on an ally to survive was the day he’d be destroyed. He should have simply killed them right then. he couldn’t allow the elf to return to his people with the news that a vampire was on his way to infiltrate the city. he didn’t think they might be needed at some point. searching vainly for some sign that Kat had passed this way. He would be trouble. the elven mage and the tiger-warrior. The elf was right that they’d just slow him down. Erebus could see it in him. more subtle senses were turned back. as soon as he’d stood in Erebus’ way. Erebus never spared them so much as a glance.
and the wise strategist didn’t throw away tools that may yet serve a purpose. as a lure or sacrifice. All that mattered was Kat’s successful rescue – because he had pledged his protection. then they would die by his hand. A dead enemy was one that you no longer had to worry about. They might somehow be useful. Erebus allowed himself a grimly satisfied smile. If that was accomplished with the lives of the two behind him still intact. 153 . Perhaps she had become the soft spot on his armor. the weak link that would allow the enemy’s sword to find his heart. one that was doubly dangerous because it gave an enemy a second chance even as it blinded the victor to reality. That wasn’t the reason his two prisoners remained alive. that was all. She lacked the iron will and cold ruthlessness that he had gained after centuries of battle and betrayal. It was as simple as that. Mercy was a foolish illusion. one that couldn’t reappear later to stab you in the back. become so important without him even realizing the diluting effect she was having? Erebus snarled silently to himself. He was assuming nothing and taking no chances.Erebus’ brow furrowed in consternation. How could he have become so weak that he was beginning to act with mercy? Was it Kat’s influence? He knew that she would have objected to his killing the two behind him. He was being prepared. How could she have gotten so very close to him.
At last. Kat kept enough pressure on her manacles to hold herself tight against the wall.CHAPTER 16 Kat twisted her body. Despite the unrelenting pain in her arms. side by side. 154 . easing her full weight onto the ledge. Kat’s face broke into a grin of triumph as her left foot caught on a narrow ledge. Moving carefully now. making sure her feet didn’t slip out from beneath her. feeling reasonably secure in her balance. pulling herself up as high as she could by her arms. trying to ignore the burning pain that lanced through her abused wrists. Slowly shifting her balance. still holding most of her weight on her arms. Her feet kicked at the wall behind her. scrabbling desperately for purchase on the wet. but the ledge seemed firm enough to support her weight. she slid her other foot beside the first. There was barely enough room for her two heels. slime-slicked stone.
holding herself motionless to think. and torso jutting out under the manacles like a weird gargoyle. but was still far too strong for her to break. If she could manage to create enough slack in the chains. huge bolt driven between a pair of the massive stone blocks. and was relieved to see that the bolt ended in a loop through which a single length of chain ran. it was far more comfortable that hanging by her bloodied wrists.she looked up at her manacles. To her relief. Kat paused. The bolt itself was covered with flaky rust. legs twisted under her. Carefully Kat examined the chains above her head. Kat glanced down at her pocket studded vest. If she could just lessen the friction between the rough blocks of stone and the equally rough metal of the bolt. Although her cramped position was extremely awkward. If she slipped in her precarious position. She didn’t want to risk breaking bones or opening a deep gash. The closest pocket was just under her right shoulder. her rump tight against the wall. Time and damp had done their work well on the wall. they seemed supported only by a single. she might be able to slip her fingertips in and grasp the small flask of burglar’s oil she carried. what little mortar remained around the bolt was weak and crumbling. She didn’t plan on bleeding to death hanging from the wall like a butchered animal. The viscous fluid was designed to smooth rusted. Kat peered closely at the wall itself and let out a muffled exclamation of joy. She needed to carefully consider every move before acting. she could possibly pull it from the wall. eyeing the place where they joined the wall. The only thing still pinning the metal shaft in place was the sideways pressure of the blocks. the shock of landing hard against her chains would severely damage her already torn wrists. By lifting her left arm high and holding her manacled 155 . noisy metal and should work ideally for the plan she had in mind.
she tried jiggling the bolt experimentally. Kat dropped it to free her hands. feeling the metal grow slimy and coated. A fall. felt it move slightly under her prodding. pushing the oil as deeply into the crevice between the blocks as she could with her fingers.wrist against the loop. Once the flask was empty. 156 . The uncomfortable angle made it impossible to see what she was doing. she ignored the discomfort and concentrated on working the fluid around on the bolt. Gripping the bottle tightly by the neck. and she just had to feel when the opening of the flask was against the metal bolt. Still. She didn’t want to imagine the agony of hanging by her arms with one of her shoulders dislocated. Kat slowly angled it above her and tipped it on its side. She was dripping with sweat by now. would wrench her left arm terribly before the chains equalized. Kat was able to similarly lengthen the chain on her right arm. After a bit. Once it was in position. both from tension and the work of keeping her muscles tight and holding so still. Within moments. oozing in little rivulets down her face and matting her hair. She gritted her teeth in disgust as the thick liquid dripped off of the bolt and fell onto her head. being careful to maintain outward pressure on the bolt so she didn’t lose her balance. deathly afraid that it’d slip from her damp hand and fall to the floor. and waited for the oil to do its work. she withdrew her hand. gripped the chains tightly with her slippery fingers. Carefully she worked her pocket open with her fingertips and then slipped them inside. mentally calling up the image of the flask. if it came. triumphantly clasping the familiar bottle. mindful of the fact that her weight was distributed differently now. and to her relief. Slowly she reached for her pocket. she thumbed off the cap and let the oil flow out.
throwing herself side to side in an attempt to loosen the wall’s grip on the bolt. and hopefully last. As soon as she felt the uneven stone beneath the soft soles of her boots. the bolt was too deep in the stone to bend down and fall free. and with a final grimace against the coming pain. Kat heaved herself up by her arms. snapping her feet hard against the stone as close beneath her coiled body as she could. The bolt shifted almost imperceptibly. but not enough to give her any kind of hope that it was about to come free. Even with the oil. straining outward against the bolt like a tethered bird trying to fly. She’d have to pull it straight out from the wall. holding most of her weight with her chains. Kat carefully repositioned herself for the next. and her newfound freedom. At last. She couldn’t just drop back and let herself hang. staring down at her with an unreadable expression. the long bolt slid free. Before she could do more than gasp at the pain. making space for her feet beneath her hips. sending Kat tumbling forward to land painfully on her hands and knees on the cold stone floor on her cell. she pushed.Grinning in an odd mixture of triumph and trepidation. Desperately. Inching her feet back along the tiny ledge. with a tooth-aching scraping whine. knowing that her strength was waning. *** 157 . she made her move. For what seemed a long time. Kat twisted the chains. the thick wooden door slid open soundlessly to reveal a desiccated corpse dressed in the tattered and decaying remnants of a fine robe. nothing happened. she managed to scoot her rump upward along the wall. step. Finally she felt she was ready.
Turning from Cor-Tarain.Erebus felt his power surge as he stepped from the sun drenched prairie and into the gloom of the forest. hardly noticed the ash swirling thick beneath the dark boughs.” The vampire’s cold voice ebbed Cor-Tarain’s terror. the branches overhead stiff and somehow expectant. his haunted eyes staring around unblinkingly. Sabre slowed to a halt. he gave a hoarse shout and flung up his hands to frantically cast his spell. the calm before the storm. his eyes staring blankly straight ahead.” Cor-Tarain didn’t need to ask what “it” was. scenting the warm. “Don’t even think about it. the owner of those eyes exploded into motion. as though a waiting hush had fallen over the forest. The look on Sabre’s face was enough to call his attention to how very still and lifeless the forest seemed. Cor-Tarain turned slowly around. When he saw a pair of faintly glowing red eyes glaring at him from the shadows nearby. dry air. and the blade disappeared from his neck. Readying his most powerful battle spell in his mind. “It’s here. He spared no thought to how unnaturally quiet the wood was. the sweeping edge of a barely seen black sword hissing through the dirty air to rest gently against his throat. Behind him. Before he could even complete the first gesture. he spoke in a voice that was little more than a whisper. causing CorTarain to turn back to face him. Before Cor-Tarain could inquire. Sabre remained motionless except for his flaring nostrils and twitching ears. Erebus started 158 . he strode into the wood following the tracking spell’s silent urging. replacing the unknown threat with a danger that was all too real and familiar. Close. Dropping his now unneeded cloak of shadows. The tiger-warrior’s eyes were wide and glassy with remembered horror as his nostrils flared. Slowly Cor-Tarain lowered his hands.
” A cone of star-bright. the fingers clasping a brightly glowing jewel. despite the form it wore. “What’s…?” The undergrowth to Cor-Tarain’s left suddenly crackled violently. and then lay still. he knew what it was not. wiry human who approached them at a nonchalant pace. The man smiled. fangs bared and eyes alight. Then his dead eyes ignited. detached expression.toward the warrior. as though the man were a puppet whose strings were being pulled by an inexperienced master. picking him bodily off the ground and hurling him through the air to smash with a terrible wet crunch into the trees several yards away. his body acquiring a bloody aura. Though he didn’t know what this being was. liquid fire closed around Erebus like a giant’s hand. empty smile still firmly plastered on his pale lips. It was dangerous. This was no human. a frighteningly empty expression. sword ready in his hand. Even faced with the onrushing vampire. even before the huge ruby clenched firmly in the right hand became visible. the untouched blade of the 159 . that they had found the creature that had decimated Sabre’s tribe. he could feel the power of it gathering like a storm on the horizon. expelling a thin. blade raised in challenge. He charged forward. that horrible. So fast was his movement. As the vampire barreled up to him. and Cor-Tarain knew. the man retained his calm. his flesh blazing. He rolled over bonelessly once. pivoting smoothly around to face the stranger squarely. Erebus was already in motion. that he was nearly atop the creature before it had managed to raise its hand. blade cleaving the air before him with a faint keen. vibrating the air with barely contained fury. he pointed the ruby at him and said a single word: “Burn. Erebus halted in mid step.
the jewel winking like a malevolent crystalline eye as it focused on him.Alazon. knocking him to the floor with her atop him. She relaxed slightly. burying it to the hilt in the creature’s chest. but a bony arm swung up and caught her on the side of the head with amazing strength. CHAPTER 17 With no time to think. her well-honed reflexes launching her up from the floor and into flying leap at her captor. wondering if any of them would be enough. Kat’s fingers closed around the hilt of the dagger strapped to her right flank. unable to believe the effortless power that had destroyed the strongest warrior he had ever seen. Kat simply reacted. not pausing to question why she had been allowed to keep her weapons. she slammed it down into the writhing body beneath her. crackling with green fire. That hand rose again. Cor-Tarain gaped at the vampire’s blazing and huddled form before turning his unwilling gaze slowly to the creature standing at ease before them. leaf-shaped blade from its sheath. the 160 . Flicking the wide. sure that such a blow had finished the battle. Kalkamar’s reflexes weren’t nearly as quick. and Cor-Tarain swallowed and mentally searched through his repertoire of ready spells. lying just beside one limp hand. He managed only one startled step backwards before the furious Kat barreled into him.
the gesture a horrid mockery of a scholarly pose.” He turned back to face Kat. “There are other ways of getting what I want. lifting her upright with hideous strength and thrusting his cadaverous face close to hers. but their path warped as they neared her.” He chuckled wetly. “Enough!” Kalkamar rose to his feet.” *** Staring in shock at the man standing before him. stinging bolts. my dear. but hardly a crippling one. How was that 161 . “Ah yes.” He stroked his rotting chin. there are indeed. “In the meantime. the glowing pinpricks of sickly light in his eye sockets glaring into her pain-dimmed orbs. reached out and caught a handful of her hair. The lich’s face was contorted in rage and he flung a hand toward the dazed thief. it seems I cannot touch you directly with magic. to be sure. The missiles burst from his fingers and shot toward Kat. twisting into a tight spiral around her body until they vanished harmlessly. but according to the tiger-warrior’s tale. “Oh yes. still shaking her head to clear the fog. Kalkamar quickly recovered his equilibrium. the destructive power had belonged to a goblin. Yet the figure before him was human. Cor-Tarain’s numbed mind analyzed the situation with detached coolness. It seems my punishment for your impertinence shall have to wait. who had just managed to haul herself to her knees.force of the blow knocking her several feet down the corridor. tearing the stuck dagger from his chest with a sound like tearing parchment and dropping it contemptuously to ring on the stone floor. There could be no doubt that this was the same being that had ravaged Sabre’s tribe. calling up a minor magic to lash her with a rain of small. An inconvenience. the circlet. At first taken aback.
Barely remembered history meant little at the moment. “Vampire! Arise to battle! Damn you. he shook off the thought and dragged himself back to the present. Tales of an item too powerful to control that had dominated and destroyed all who tried to wield it. Without him…. and no division amongst them. Shrugging. a puppet controlled by the will of the stone? Deep within his memories. or legends. we need your strength now!” Cor-Tarain gave vent to a series of creative curses in elvish as the downed vampire remained inert and motionless.possible? Was the creature a shapeshifter or other fell beast not limited to a single form? His gaze alighted on the glowing jewel clutched in the man’s fist. Against so merciless and powerful a foe there could be no surrender. together. Much as he despised and hated such Undead vermin. The mage gritted his teeth and raised his hands. would demand all their combined powers. something stirred. or they would fall. or would he too become a mere shell. and the realization dawned on him. They would stand. What would happen then. if indeed it could be done. of something like this. and quite possibly more. The creature itself was merely a vehicle possessed by the entity or force that resided in the jewel. Icicles instantly appeared 162 . causing him to stagger as it coated him in frost and ice. if they managed to destroy the body? Would the dominating force simply leap to one of their bodies? Could the victim fight it off. His fingers sped with practiced ease through the intricate gestures of the spell and the resulting blast of intense cold that erupted from his palms rolled over the man. there was no denying that the dark warrior had been their greatest chance of defeating this creature. He dimly recalled hearing stories. no weakness. Defeating this being.
Cor-Tarain licked dry lips and hurriedly raised his strongest shield. the walls. icicles falling to shatter on the ground as the limb moved ponderously toward the mage. trying to remain motionless within her tiny prison. the metal glowing slightly with a radiance of its own. Flame unleashed a tremendous wave of fire that surged toward the wizard. would slice her flesh like razors if she tried to cross them. The multi-colored bars. This chamber alone seemed beyond the destructive touch of time. and his eyes froze in their sockets. but the circlet in her pocket nearly crackled with the power surging 163 . *** Kat stood. knowing that it wouldn’t be strong enough to resist the power rolling toward him. a brittle finger cracking off as it did so. a circular room at the highest remaining level of the tower. They were in his casting chamber. floor and ceiling were immaculate and glossy black stone without even a hint of dust. The lich was standing before a tracery of gold lines inlaid into the gleaming floor in an elaborate circle. Flame struggled to lift its arm. devouring everything in its path as it surged forward. The body’s lips locked into a rictus grin. Pointing the gem at Cor-Tarain. She didn’t know what was happening. inside a cage of snarling energy. the lich had informed her coldly.hanging from his hair and limbs. So she stood. her legs feeling weak and rubbery. and watched the Undead wizard go through the motions of a complicated spell. its flesh suddenly stiff and cumbersome. wobbling slightly. Watching death approach. she assumed.
rumbling out of the pillar of living darkness. Abruptly the shuddering ceased. It was shaped somewhat like a man robed in dark flames that seemed to greedily drink in the faint light around them. The aura of power and evil radiating from it was nearly overwhelming. it was something big. echoing with such 164 . turning his entire concentration and attention to the Call.around it. “Mauldraxus! I summon you. his voice echoing through the Void as it shouted a name. and a silence so complete that it hurt Kat’s ears dropped upon the room like a wave. Kat found herself gagging. Kalkamar ignored his helpless captive. The voice that spoke then. writhing and reforming over melding and shifting bones. its very lack of definition making it even more horrible. the muted cracks and groans of tortured stone beneath her reminding her unpleasantly of the structural instability of the rest of the tower. the creature’s face appeared. That unnatural light glimmered on skin that seemed to be constantly changing shape. The power of his magic breached the planes and created a conduit to a realm of darkness. Lord of the Black Flame and Keeper of Plague and Poison! I. slightly illuminated by the venomous green radiance that shone from his eyes. Kalkamar the Eternal. High above them. quite possibly both. nearly brushing the ceiling. The being standing before Kalkamar couldn’t be seen completely. her body shuddering as it tried to fight against the suddenly poisonous miasma that seemed to fill the room. Kat had to stifle the nearly uncontrollable urge to scream or be violently sick. Whatever was being done. command you into my presence! Come forth!” Kat barely managed to keep her feet as the chamber shook. Dragging her unwilling eyes up from the floor.
trembling. the grass and few plants around it hardy enough to have survived the blast of fire now withering and dying as their life-force was drained by the abyssal blade. seeking to merge. to her knees. the metal appearing to twist and writhe as its gathering power began to warp the light around it. the Alazon sent an invisible tentacle of energy arrowing through the air. The sword’s dark blade seemed to shiver. I AM COME. *** Lying forgotten on the scorched earth beside the charred and motionless form of its wielder. The Alazon gathered its strength. seeking Bloodfever Swamp. When it had attained sufficient power. to become one. seeking the origin of the force that so called to it. the Alazon suddenly came alive. a kindred force that called silently. It sensed the sudden appearance of a familiar energy.malevolent power that it dropped Kat. 165 . green lightning snarling into the air.
his weird eyes blazing from their sockets with a frantic light. poisonous gaze locked on its summoner. threatening him with horrible torments and throwing all their power into breaking his hold over them. At long last. arms raised as though quieting a cheering crowd. before at last submitting. its concealing robe of black flames flowing silently over the glossy floor. This silent scrutiny was by 166 . the shadowy giant stepped smoothly over it.CHAPTER 18 Kalkamar stood triumphantly. “Dark Lord of the Pit. the circlet he had hunted for so many centuries was within his grasp. sure that his monstrous minion was firmly leashed. As the glowing circle grew dim. The creature came to a halt midway between Kat and the lich. unsure of what to make of the continuing silence. I have summoned you from your hellish domain that you might perform for me a service!” He paused for a moment. Confident that his control over the infernal being he had summoned was now absolute. just outside the rune circle that contained the demon. had raged against their captor. Kalkamar spoke in a strong voice that quivered with anticipation. he dispelled the protective barrier with a wave of his bony hand. The lich’s face was tight with expectation. and nothing was going to stop him from claiming it. Exuding confidence. All the other demons he had summoned.
I offer the girl herself. “This mortal girl that I have imprisoned before you has in her possession a magical relic of considerable power. most magnificent Darkness. in addition to releasing you from bondage. that his patience had reached its limit when she had escaped her bonds and attacked him. He took a breath out of old habit to steady himself before continuing. trying to find a weakness that could save 167 . probably while she lay unconscious. For this service. As the demon drew close. and enraged by the fact that the circlet was sitting here in his very tower and yet was beyond his grasp. and cannot be removed save by her will. Thus I have called you. considering the few options open to her. His blazing eyes cast weak puddles of green light on the floor around her. for your amusement. The item’s presence renders her immune to magic. he had pulled out all the stops and summoned an incredibly powerful demon to do what he could not. slowly and menacingly. You. reaching out a huge hand for her. have the power to find and remove the circlet and deliver it to me. and you alone. with its infinite pockets. however. Kat tore her eyes away and stared at the lich. for I know of your ability to warp and pervert all things. That explained why she was yet alive – he was hesitant to kill her until he had the circlet in is hand. my most powerful spells cannot penetrate its defenses.far the more intimidating. It is hidden within her enchanted jerkin. as though she were just recovering from a long illness. but had been foiled by the jerkin she wore.” The demon turned. the vile radiance making her feel sick and weak. As the demon took a long step toward her. Apparently the lich had already tried to retrieve the circlet from her. Kat’s mind raced. It seemed. just in case her will had been required to command the jerkin to yield its treasure. to regard Kat. Frustrated by his inability to use his magic on her.
His face appeared even more gaunt that before. and suddenly her world was pain. 168 . and it was beginning to tell. When she screamed. Agony such as she’d never known flared within her as every poison. his whole skeletal frame shivering like a man naked in a blizzard. tears spilling from her burning eyes. The demon reached out for her. she saw the truth. He had overexerted himself by summoning such a power as this creature. the sound of suffering beyond bearing.her. she would throw herself into the bars of her cage. The lich stood tall. The flickering nimbus of aroused power surrounding him was weaker than before. the sight swiftly banishing Kat’s smile as his giant hand passed through the bars of her cage. and seemed to be dimming before her eyes. When Kat looked closer. letting them reduce her body to shreds. and he would lose control entirely. one minor distraction. however. the streaming energies twisting away as though they refused to suffer his polluted contact. every form of suffering known to any entity crashed through her at once. Death would be an escape from the horrors she would no doubt know if the demon was allowed to take her. The hand withdrew. each breath a painful gasp and her whole body twitching with the aftershocks of remembered pain. the decaying skin pulled taut against the bones. and Kat found herself writhing blindly on the floor. it was the wail of utter hopeless torment. He was straining at the very edge of his control – his magical strength taxed nearly beyond its limit. His dark and smoky fingers wrapped themselves around her. Lacking one. Kat allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction. He was trembling. every disease. A slight push more. seeming for all the world as though he were barely tapping the surface of his power.
when the impossible happened. He pointed imperiously at Kat and began to order the demon lord back to its task. Swaying. with no hint of a threat. It turned away from her then. its vile spotlight gaze pinning the lich where he stood. dragging herself numbly to her feet. TO BE YOUR DELIVERY BOY? BEFORE THIS IS THROUGH. If she’d had the strength. PUNY MAGE. BODY AND SOUL. BODY AND SOUL I’LL HAVE YOU. YOU SUMMON ME. leaving her to her own private world of pain and terror. desperately striving to rally his fading strength. Kat gritted her teeth and pushed. she would have thrown herself into the bars of her cage. but her limbs wouldn’t obey her commands. YOU INSULT ME WITH THIS TASK. He pulled himself up as tall as he could.THAT WAS BUT A TASTE OF THE DELICIOUS AGONY THAT AWAITS YOU. while the right drew out one of the flasks of 169 . The demon turned back to face Kalkamar. YOU SHALL HAVE AMPLE CAUSE TO REGRET YOUR FOLLY. WITH TORMENTS FOR EACH. The words were spoken simply as a statement. Struggling with all her might to force her weak and trembling body back under control. MORTAL. LORD OF THE BLACK FLAME. though his stature was mocked by the demon’s vast size. she stood still battling against her almost overwhelming terror and hopelessness as the fingers of her left hand inched down to the small of her back and the throwing knife that was secured there. and Kalkamar found himself shivering despite his knowledge that he was safe from the demon’s vengeance.
and is mildly surprised to see it arrive so soon. long teeth that drooled acidic poison. The great demon smiled. As Kalkamar began his command. coating the metal with the water. Pooling the liquid on her palm. to find the demon lord standing silently right in front of him. Suddenly he was very much distracted. her shuddering arm causing most of it to spill. but his skin was so thin that the blade had driven nearly all the way into him. grasping wildly at the metal that was burning him. just the flat pommel remaining to reflect the light as he danced around. Kalkamar managed one step backward. leaving a smoldering wound behind. Dropping it angrily to the floor he looked up. At last he managed to catch hold of the pommel and draw the knife out. a sliver of gleaming metal came spinning toward him out of the darkness. It felt as though he were burning. LET US GO. knowing a simple knife would do him no real damage. eyes promising slow death. or being eaten by acid! The pain was intense. she laid the knife blade in it. satisfied smile.holy water Jerhin had given her from a pocket of her jerkin. was soft and calm. Kalkamar ignored it. unseen lips wrinkling back from teeth than gleamed in the evil light of his eyes. the voice of one who’s been expecting this outcome. arms raised in a futile attempt to ward away the gigantic 170 . trying to grasp the knife and pull it out. a slow. I HAVE SUCH PLANS FOR YOU. The small fang buried itself between his ribs…and the holy water touched his flesh. and he staggered to the side. and concentrated on the far more important task of keeping his mind focused on maintaining his control over the demon. Kalkamar’s attention had been broken. COME MAGE. when it came. and Mauldraxus was freed of his control. The voice.
That soul-wrenching scream ended as though cut by a knife as that portal closed. Gritting his teeth. Cor-Tarain strained against it. no longer caged. been home to the main concentration. the sword settled for the next best thing. thousands of his people would fall as well. reeling it in through the ether and bringing to where the sword lay on the scorched ground. like the warmth of a hand remaining on the handle of a door. *** The flame wave slammed into Cor-Tarain’s barrier. The energy that had so called to it had disappeared. There was simply no other choice. and dragged him. Robbed of its prize. 171 . hissing like a thousand snakes as it fought to overcome the defense. screaming in wild hopelessness and fear. stood beside the spot that had. For a moment. so too would any hope Varadell had of being forewarned about the approaching danger. He would hold on. Angrily he narrowed his eyes and pushed harder at the shield. until a moment ago. in the empty tower…. The faint trace. *** The Alazon was baffled. wrapped around the fainter source and pulled. He couldn’t hold it. If he fell. sagging shield. clearing his mind of all other thoughts. Its questing tendril of power reached out. caught him around the torso. The wave would break through in moments and he would be overwhelmed.hand that reached out. funneling all of his magical energy and strength of will into the failing. Once he fell. leaving only an echo remaining. into a portal that opened in the floor. leaving Kat standing alone. darker than the black stone.
commanding him to rise. The sword. His eye widened when he saw Kat. Like a broken titan the warrior pulled himself up from the ground. “Erebus!” Kat rushed over and fell to her knees beside the vampire’s motionless body. scorched. for some reason. One moment she was standing in a freshly abandoned lich’s tower. and rise he would. and looked about him. and Kat couldn’t see Erebus anywhere. gaining his feet through force of will alone. you must get up. Erebus raised his head. then she felt a sudden wrenching coldness and a sickening sensation of movement. unharmed. “Erebus? Erebus please. Her mouth moved silently. and a burning. All she saw was the tiger-warrior and the elven mage battling a strange human. She reached out with trembling hands to touch him. and somehow kneeling before him once again. twisted armor. but drew back with a sob from the heat of his blackened. alive. Bone ground against bone as the fleshless jaw worked. glowing red iris expanding and contracting spastically for a moment as nerves fired randomly before settling into their proper rhythm. I command it!” The single remaining eye snapped open. You must. elongated incisors looking even longer and sharper with gums no longer around them. was lying discarded on the ground. if he could force his body to respond. as though the floor had dropped out from beneath her. leafless trees all around.Kat didn’t know what had happened. and her 172 . crumpled object that looked vaguely familiar…. and now she found herself standing beside the Alazon. From a long way off it seemed that he heard Kat’s voice calling to him. staring up at him through tear-filled eyes. At last.
Erebus knew what he must look like. small creatures dropped lifeless to the earth as their hearts burst under the pain in that sound – the accumulated suffering of a thousand years of torment and the helpless wrath of a damned soul. crushing. through the power of his parasite. and he had been helpless to rescue her! Kat fell over backwards. Through the sheer force of his unbridled fury. his flaming will bending. he yet walked the earth. and drove the startled looking red-eyed man back several steps. the flame wave that had been savaging the elven wizard’s shield abruptly collapsing. until the 173 . and the raging beast of his vampire was loosed. her eyes wide with shock. overwhelming the shields of discipline and distance that he had so carefully built around himself. grown strong and hardy over the ages. In an instant the cold. breaking. pouring past the barriers and bulkheads that tried to stem it. For miles around. Yet he lived still. tearing. and much of that was little more than a skeleton. feeding him the power it had collected and stored. Kat had been taken from him. This time there was no transformation.face filled with sorrow and pity. power he would need to fight this battle. The power of that shriek threw Sabre and Cor-Tarain to their knees. He could feel the flesh hanging in burned strips from his seared and blackened bones. More than half of his body was terribly charred. he felt a murderous rage rise within him. Erebus reached deep within himself and seized the vampire. iron warrior that was Erebus shattered. Yes. Turning back to face the battle and the strange creature of fire. like water filling a ship. He could feel it working to repair his ravaged body. as the vampire threw its head back and screamed its rage to the sky. Erebus’ remaining eye narrowed. clutching at their ears. the rage was too pure and powerful.
still on her knees. mentally laying their commands in place. Sabre fought as he never had before. ignoring the Alazon that lay gleaming on the scorched turf.parasite cowered in terror within his mind and offered its power to him without resistance. Turning from Kat. the ground trembled and humped as bony. some still wearing the tattered remnants of the armor in which they had fallen. Still the 174 . All around him. Decaying dire wolves the size of ponies loped from the trees. hands still outstretched. turned back on itself. Soon a small army of dead had gathered before the maimed vampire who stood as though frozen. jagged fangs bared and thick yellow saliva drooling from their black lips. rotting limbs tore from the earth’s embrace and reached once more into the world of the living. calm. their long. Sabre charged. Erebus reached out to the many creatures that had died on this spot over the millennia. The red wave of Erebus’ anger broke. commanding them to rise again to battle. and grinding away everything before it. he raised his hands. Calling on his innate abilities. Snarling. broken weapons to the sky in a voiceless war cry. raised rusted. Human skeletons. his fine-edged scimitar whirling around his body like a ribbon of liquid steel and striking out at Flame with series of blindingly fast attacks that left blood pouring from a dozen fatal wounds. Javelin after javelin of ravening energy tore through the air and slammed with brutal force into the strange human. leaving charred holes that didn’t seem to bother the creature in the least. and became a consuming whirlpool sucking away the fury and leaving a glacier of black hate: slow.
pouring its own power into the weakening limbs. the blade driving deeply between ribs in a spray of dark blood. knowing that to give in to pain or fear was to die. unhurried. Bones heated and the remaining fluid boiled away. The massed dead hit Flame hard. In eerie silence the newly risen undead army turned and charged at the red-eyed man. no fear 175 . The flesh dried and cracked. turning to regard Sabre as one would an insect. On and on they came. the man reached down and caught hold of the scimitar’s blade with his free hand. not caring that the razored steel nearly severed all of his fingers. before lashing out with a gout of fire that left the earth black and smoking as Sabre dove desperately aside. but Flame forced it to continue to function. Not hesitating. he pulled the weapon from Sabre’s grasp and flung it away. Without bothering to use his flames. the unholy strength of the corpses ripping and tearing. but still they came on. beating the body mercilessly. The body it inhabited leaked vital fluids in a hundred places. unconcerned. peeling away in great sheets as the stone’s burning energy filled the body. backhanding the stunned tiger-warrior as his arm came around.man seemed unfazed. With a wrench. the tiger-warrior rolled to his feet and came at the man from the other side. the mechanisms within beginning to fail. scimitar lashing out to open a wicked slash in the man’s side. Again and again Flame lashed out with whips of white-hot fire. and knocking him backward to sprawl on the burned earth. Flame had never faced such foes as these. who stood motionless in a pool of his own blood. reducing handfuls of the closely packed attackers to drifting ash. but the body remained on its feet.
already super heated and fragile. his ravaged body quivering under the strain. Flame’s arm broke: the bone. already strong. Erebus began to worry that the flow of power itself would destroy him. Flesh appeared to cover bared bone. repairing his damaged body at an astounding rate. his lean. and glowing eyes flamed like stars as impossible energy roared through him. the one that held the jewel. shredded muscle knitted and grew along desiccated arms and torso like spreading weeds. Flame suddenly felt a terrible empty coldness. Snarling. mindless Undead before him. powerful body whole and his pale skin devoid of so much as a scar. 176 . Shuddering under the assault.or pain apparent on their rotting faces even as they melted away under his blasts. sucking void that began to relentlessly drain its energy. the appearance of a hungry. Erebus lifted the Alazon and the struggling creature it pinned into the air and held them suspended. skin thickened. Muscles. and unleashed another wave of fire that consumed all the crowded. he felt stolen life force begin to drain from his victim and pour into him. sickly glow. Calling upon one of the dark sword’s powers. shattering under the grip of yet another corpse. Flame saw the tip of a huge black blade protruding from his chest. Erebus’ body healed rapidly as Flame’s massive energy was drawn into the Alazon and poured into the vampire. Looking down. a blade that shone with a vile. Flame raised the body’s remaining arm. And still power flowed into him. Turning with a wrench that left the remnants of the arm clutched in the attacking zombie’s smoking hands. bulged and hardened. Swiveling his blackened head to lock onto the next target. In moments the vampire stood before them.
He tried to stem the flow. then turned to regard his temporary allies. and he threw his head back with a brief cry 177 .” The elven mage and the feline warrior exchanged glances.” As the elven wizard stiffened in indignation. Erebus turned away and reached for the jewel that lay. personal feelings must be set aside for the greater good. and still the sword fed him more. he stared at Kat with undisguised relief as she ran over to him.” He glanced down at the huddled mass of blackened flesh at Erebus’ side with revulsion. and for that. the giant ruby slipped from the spasming body’s hand and fell to the earth. At last. tried to call out to the Alazon to cease its drain. but his thoughts were drowned out by the roaring river of energy. faintly pulsing. At last Cor-Tarain nodded as though coming to a decision. “Against such a foe as this. his cool gaze meeting Erebus’. I free you now to go where you will. You have fought beside us against this…creature. Your open-mindedness and generosity shame and humble me.” A wry smile crooked Erebus’ hard mouth.blowing his body apart as it filled him beyond his capacity. Lord Elf. you deserve my tolerance. “Kat is returned unharmed. on the scorched ground. his body slowly returning to normal as the excess energy bled from him. scorched thing that had once been human. Trembling. The tips of his fingers brushed against the gem’s hard surface. his hand tightening on the Alazon’s grip. His cold façade gone. “I think the time for petty disagreements is done. Erebus sank to his knees beside the mangled. and so ends your involvement. the fighter wobbling so badly with weakness that he could barely remain on his feet. sizzling as it touched the few dry grasses that remained. “Such flattery.
it is far too dangerous. his quivering fingers opened.” Grimly he locked the other’s gazes with his own.” Not noticing Cor-Tarain’s sharp look at the mention of the sword’s name. Erebus studied the jewel. briefly. “Carry it we must. it is the Court Mage of Varadell. We know of at least one mage who is searching for it even now.” He glanced at his companions and his lips tightened. “If there is any who knows more of this item and its power. into its mind and its memories. shaking his head. but we dare not leave it here. and I don’t believe that we have the power to destroy it. and because it had been greatly weakened by the Alazon’s drain. and he flung himself backward as the ruby dropped once more to earth. He will know what to do. Surprised. There are others of its kind. Varadell is a fortress. “It very nearly had me. I saw. his face contorted in a combination of agony and concentration. “I only managed to escape because I am not unfamiliar with mental combat. its will tried to dominate mine. “There is another problem. despite the danger. his whole body trembling violently as he struggled to drop the ruby. It will not be a simple task to bring 178 .” Cor-Tarain squinted hard at the stone. It longs to be reunited with them. but it fears such a reunion as well. everyone stared at the vampire as he slowly picked himself up. When it tried to dominate me. It is not alone. As soon as I made contact with the stone. and AhlTor is one of the single most powerful and important of the People. brethren but different. Ahl-Tor. At last. I was merged with its conscience.of pain. besides the danger of the stone. Our goal seems clear: we must bring the stone to him. “We cannot carry it.” He shook his head again as though to clear out any remaining traces of the stone’s presence. I felt that strongly.
” A sardonic smile quirked his mouth.” Sabre swallowed and moved to take another step but Erebus’ cold hand on his chest held him in place. sooner or later. A battle that they will.” All turned to stare at the feline warrior. Erebus nodded agreement. “And yet. “Nay young one. as with the stone itself.” Fear shone in his pain-dulled eyes. and executed for planning to help them infiltrate the city. The first step is to decide who is to carry the jewel. just for associating willingly with such vermin.” Erebus’ voice was flat and firm. his scimitar still bared in one hand and the other outstretched for balance.” “I will carry it. I will be the easiest to destroy if that happens. we must proceed despite the danger.” His face expressionless. lose. daring.three non-elven to him. You may need to slay the one that possesses the stone if the jewel manages to seize control of him before we reach the city of the elves.” His hard eyes slid across them all. but his eyes held a flash of respect. “I will carry it. I cannot fight you. “This task is 179 . In the face of the silent scrutiny he pulled himself up straighter. “With this last service. but he held his jaw firm as he took a pace forward towards the jewel. calculating. standing unsteadily. It is a certainty that whomever we elect to carry it will spend every minute of the journey fighting an unending battle against the stone’s grasp. “I could probably be banished from the realm right now. “Think on this: the stone has a powerful. judging. nearly irresistible will and centuries of practice at domination. There is no other choice. perhaps I can atone for my cowardice. much less so when two of the three are blood foes of my race. and the least threat.
trying not to let the relief he felt show on his face. and we would have another battle on our hands. Your weakened condition is precisely the thing that disqualifies you. which eliminates a weakness we living creatures have. I am immortal: my body won’t burn out or destroy itself so readily as the mortal shells it formerly inhabited. rather than weeks. elf. it could spread massive destruction virtually unchallenged for centuries to come. In your current state you lack the strength and focus of will to resist the stone’s possessive powers for even a moment. but Cor-Tarain’s next words were cut short by the vampire’s calm voice.” 180 . “True. I would be unable to assist if battle found us. With my body. consider the power it would command. could you take me down? And there is a further consideration. “Can any of you defeat me? And if I had the additional power over fire that the stone wields. “Perhaps you are the one to bear this burden. and you don’t have to sleep. you have experience in dealing with battles of this sort. You would be taken immediately.” Erebus nodded in agreement. one that we can ill afford. and when. but think on this: I am also the most dangerous being here. I am perhaps our most powerful defense against the jewel’s attacks. looking at Erebus. If. From my taste of its power.not for you.” Sabre stepped back. and doing so would take all my concentration. Your mind would never be forced to relax its defenses. “Nay. I would be able to resist it only for a matter of days.” He shook his head in the silence that followed these words.” “Let it be me. As you have said. the stone takes control of me. I cannot be the bearer.” His eyes swept the group in blunt challenge. Cor-Tarain spoke next.
” He turned a thoughtful eye on Kat. and Sabre’s scimitar rose into a ready position as she straightened back up.” A sudden. and she met Erebus’ knowing gaze with sudden understanding. faster and faster. She has proven her strength time and time again on our journey together. and a female besides! She has not the strength for such a task. “She cannot bear this burden. and she saw approval deep within Erebus’ normally hard gaze. I believe she has an advantage over us: it will not be her will alone holding off the stone’s grip. who was blushing furiously. and is more than capable of performing this task. Of all of you. but his voice was as calm as ever. In a blur the dark blade leapt from resting point-down in the turf to lie against Cor-Tarain’s chest. but as she moved forward. Cor-Tarain thrust himself in her way. alert for any change. the stone gripped in her right hand. elf. it is she that I would least relish facing in battle.Kat stepped forward as all eyes swung to her. swift movement from the Alazon stifled Kat’s angry reply. pushing the elf gently but firmly out of Kat’s way. Cor-Tarain gasped. 181 . “And what’s more. The stone in her hand felt comfortably warm and it flashed repeatedly. she bent forward and plucked the stone from the ground. “You’d do well not to underestimate her strength.” Kat’s head rose. Before anyone else could move. and spoke to Erebus. disdain on his features. Through narrowed eyes the wary company stared at Kat. She is little more than a child. Erebus treated the suddenly sweating mage to a look of icy menace. unsure of what was supposed to happen. Kat stared back. The bearer must be me.
what was done was done. “Shall we get on with it then?” Cor-Tarain shook his head in disbelief. For several minutes he stared down at the melted. “And so another life truly ends. leaving her an empty shell? Shrugging. silently grateful that they had found a way to bypass the elven wards. Still. As Kat stepped next to him. “I let fall the twin of this medallion a day’s journey south of Varadell.” Erebus nodded. she gave a little-girl tilt of her head and a small smile. In the center of the riven armor the bloody sunrise – emblem of the long-vanished Company of the Crimson Dawn – remained intact. but instead pulled a small silver token from a pocket of his robe. Using it. At least I can simplify this part of the mission. he said nothing more on the subject. he lifted the breastplate.Erebus watched with an analytical air. it made little difference anyway. Then. he spoke without turning to look at her. or would her consciousness be driven out of her body instantly. “The stone seeks to exert its will. Kat slipped the giant ruby into a pocket of her jerkin. heedless of the faint hiss as the still hot metal made contact with his skin.” Kat gazed at the jewel in her hand as though it were a snake poised to strike. his pale face expressionless. Was that it? Was the circlet protecting her? How long would it last? Would she even know when it failed. then stepped away and walked over to where his armor lay in a twisted heap of ruined metal. he certainly could have. I can teleport us all to that spot. gleaming from the charred steel. It strains to overcome the barrier in her mind. Looking at her suspicious companions. She felt nothing. misshapen steel plates. kneeling. his expression showing that he thought that if blocking the stone’s influence were easy enough that she could do it.” 182 .
the tortured metal breaking in half with a sound like a sob of anguish. 183 . Neither looked back. the battered breastplate dropped from Erebus’ hand and fell to earth. though grief shone in his eyes. he motioned to where the elf and wounded warrior waited.Turning to face her with a slight smile. As the vampire and thief moved to join them.
“I will carry it. and the least threat. we must proceed despite the danger. I cannot fight you. just for associating willingly with such vermin. nearly irresistible will and centuries of practice at domination. standing unsteadily.” “I will carry it. lose. The first step is to decide who is to carry the jewel. You may need to slay the one that possesses the stone if the jewel manages to seize control of him before we reach the city of the elves. as with the stone itself. “And yet. “There is another problem. his scimitar still bared in one hand and the other outstretched for balance. “I could probably be banished from the realm right now. There is no other choice. In the face of the silent scrutiny he pulled himself up straighter. It will not be a simple task to bring three non-elven to him. A battle that they will. and executed for planning to help them infiltrate the city.” His hard eyes slid across them all.” 184 .” All turned to stare at the feline warrior.He glanced at his companions and his lips tightened. Erebus nodded agreement. besides the danger of the stone. daring. sooner or later. It is a certainty that whomever we elect to carry it will spend every minute of the journey fighting an unending battle against the stone’s grasp. and Ahl-Tor is one of the single most powerful and important of the People. judging. calculating. I will be the easiest to destroy if that happens. Varadell is a fortress.” His face expressionless. “Think on this: the stone has a powerful.” A sardonic smile quirked his mouth. much less so when two of the three are blood foes of my race.
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