Episode 2 – The Black One

Reev awoke very early in the morning to the clopping of hooves. The air was cold and a pale glow illuminated the eastern horizon. Dew covered the grass, and the brook trickled as water foamed over stones. A rocky ford connected either side of the stream, and near it grew an ancient weeping willow, its long green tendrils hanging down. Blue jays, cardinals and larks chirped their last songs before flying south for winter. He was thirsty. Climbing to his feet, he walked to the brook and scooped some frigid water in his hands, sucking it into his mouth. He thought of bathing, but there was no time—and besides, the water would be very cold. “Hello there, Reev,” boomed a familiar voice. Gastreel emerged from the gloom riding on a white horse. A big-eared ass clopped nearby, covered with saddlebags. The wizard held the reins in his hand. His staff was secured snugly behind his back. “Grab a pasty,” said Gastreel, “I got them at the inn before I fled.” “How are Reek and Neek?” Reev asked, taking one. “I didn’t see them. They probably escaped.” Reev nodded. What a relief. Gastreel nodded. The dough on the little meat-pie was hard after being left out all night, and a bit dry, but he gulped it down quickly, swiping his mouth with his sleeve. It was still good—Reek and Neek had made it, after all. “We go northward,” boomed the wizard, “A few days of riding awaits us before we reach the Wall of Lindor and pass into the Hill Country.” Three days passed, and a light snow dusted the grass—a perfect time to stay indoors by the fire. The trees dwindled and the land gradually became flat. Dead cornstalks rose up from the snow, and Reev could see many barns and houses all around them. The farmers had now settled down for winter. They halted by a quaint village in the midst of these cold fields. Probably half the size of Norwood, it boasted a tailor, a smithy, a ramshackle town hall, and an inn. A small statue loomed in the center, of a cloaked archer holding a raven in his hand. The villagers had probably commissioned a southern sculptor to make it. There was an inscription on the base: “Aruk Village, Birthplace of Kaden Brill.” Gastreel purchased a thick winter cloak and a pair of gloves for Reev for two shillings four pence, as well as a basket of trail rations—biscuits and salted meat—for a couple of farthings. By the time he’d finished with his purchases, the sky was dark and cloudy, so they stabled their horses at a lonely inn on the outskirts of the village called the Forlorn Inn. The inside was forlorn indeed. It had no decorations—no paintings, tapestries or even cloth hangings—and the windows looked out into the barren corn and wheat fields. The blandness of the wooden floor was only matched by the plain, whitewashed plaster walls, and the rarely-used stage. Hiring entertainment was expensive, and judging by the very few people inside, Reev guessed they simply didn’t have the money. The fire was small and poorly-tended, and didn’t ward off the chill. Still, it was significantly warmer than outside.

As they waited for their supper, Reev noticed that several men in dark, hooded robes were staring at them silently, sitting in a nearby booth. Each held a staff with goat-horns, and black runes were tattooed on their foreheads. They had the air of wizardry about them, but whether benevolent or foul he could not tell. “Gastreel,” Reev whispered, trying not to stare. “I have already seen them. They are wizards, I believe, but I do not recognize the runes they bear. I won’t give them any trouble unless they ask for it.” The innkeeper placed a plate of buttery bread slices in front of them and two mugs of ale. The bread was horribly stale, as if it had been left out for a day before being served, and the pat of butter was inadequate. “I’d rather eat trail rations,” Reev said, washing down the cheap fare with ale. Gastreel smiled. “It’s a good value for a twopence—even a rich adventurer cannot afford to eat like a king every day.” “I wouldn’t pay a farthing for it!” Reev said, grimacing, “They should pay me to eat this garbage.” Midway through their meal, the strange hooded men stood up and walked over. “What do they want?” whispered Reev. “Hush,” said Gastreel. They now stood at their table. “Are you Archmage Gastreel?” asked one. “Indeed I am,” he said, trying his best to sound friendly, “Forgive me if I ask, but what do those horns on the staff mean?” “They are the Horns of the Deceiver, milord.” “That is not familiar,” he said, “Show me your licensing documentation, please.” “We don’t need licensing!” “You know the punishment. Die!” Gastreel thrust his palm and staff forward. Fire burst from his hand and ate away one wizard’s flesh until he was a pile of charred ash and bone. He leapt to his feet and struck another with his staff, heaving him to the floor. “Our master cometh within the hour! He is not even a mile away!” hissed another. More fire jetted from Gastreel’s hand and disintegrated two others. The last one remaining, whimpering on the floor, cried, “Mercy! Mercy!” “You must pay with your life, according to the Law,” Gastreel said. He was now sweating and red-faced. The fire that spat from his hand was now weaker, but consumed the last wizard just the same. “You’re so powerful, Gastreel!” Reev said. He nodded. “Those wizards were weaklings, perhaps initiates,” he said, wiping some sweat from his brow. “I would disrupt their staffs, but I must conserve my energy.” He strode over to the innkeeper, who looked frightened to death. He cowered and moved backward as Gastreel approached. The wizard placed a single gold florin on his desk. His eyes lit up. “For your troubles.” By the time they had retrieved their animals from the stable, Reev could see in the distance a humanoid creature with tough black skin and white markings on his chest. His eyes were wild and dark, inhuman; his teeth, pointy and sharp. He rode on a steed as black as pitch, with wild eyes and a silver mane. In the monster’s hand was a crooked saber of sharp steel

rimmed with dry blood. Fear seized Reev’s heart. Behind him were countless Rokahn, their yellow eyes luminous in the dark wintry night. Some rode on horses; others on supply wagons; the vast majority walked. But Reev knew the Rokahn could march far and long through snow, sleet and wind. “Hop behind me, Reev! Hurry!” Gastreel bellowed. He unfastened a wooden chest from the ass’s side and grabbed it. Reev hopped on. Gastreel took a look behind him and kicked the stirrups, leaving the poor pack mule by itself. “That black-skinned monster is Drayfin, one of Seymus’ top generals,” Gastreel said as the horse climbed a snow-dusted hill, “A more evil, more powerful enemy you shall not find.” “What is he?” Reev asked. “Drayfin is a glyrn,” Gastreel explained, “A foul tribe of Rokahn who claim descent from the ancient demon Belgor. His skin is like dragonhide and heals quickly. Glyrns are prized warriors, and for good reason; no human soldier is a match for one. Drayfin has wandered the land ever since Seymus died in his first incarnation, killing and hunting.” Reev shuddered. “All around the Empire people shudder in fear at the mention of ‘The Black One.’ Be careful when he is near.” Reev gulped. The sky was grey. As they pulled over the hill crest, a thick, marshy forest appeared below. The fetid water occasionally bubbled up, releasing gas into the air, and he could hear strange sounds coming from inside—faint howls, hoots and rustlings. If Reev remembered correctly, they were the Murk Swamps, a terrible wilderness of hags, black wolves, and worst of all, harpies. They rode silently for a while and then stopped. “Murk,” the wizard said, “Not a fair place. Climb off!” “We’re going in there?” Reev said nervously. He obeyed. “Not we,” Gastreel said, “You. I’m sorry; there is a dire matter in the East that needs settling.” “What do you mean?” Reev cried, “I can’t go in there alone!” His eyes began to water. “You said you’d come with me.” “Hush.” Gastreel climbed off his horse and opened up the chest he’d been carrying. Inside was a sword. As the wizard held the blade up in the moonlight, Reev saw that elvish runes covered it, and it had the sheen of silver. “This is Doomblade, and it is made purely of bromil, or dwarvensteel. There is no metal to match its sharpness, resilience, or its lightness. And to make things even better, it is magic— woven with countless spells.” Reev held it, sad and angry but still pleased. He waved it around. “I feel like a hero,” he said, dabbing his wet eyes. “And what is a hero without his armor?” Out of the chest he pulled a shiny ringmail shirt, emblazoned with an eagle head wrought of pure gold. The metal glinted in the moonlight. “That’s the symbol of the Isle-men,” Reev said. “Was my father a Peregothian?” “Put it on,” Gastreel said, “It is tough, made of high-quality steel. And your father made many enemies, so wearing it may draw attention to you.” Reev took off his winter cloak and slid the mail shirt over his tunic, then covered it up again. “Thanks.” He paused, wiping his wet eyes. “Still, I don’t want to go in.”

“You must,” Gastreel said. He brushed Reev on the back. “Take heart. Consider it a test of will. But you must hurry; I feel the presence of the glyrn, Drayfin.” Over the snowy hills the sun was beginning to rise. A storm cloud was rolling in and a chill wind blew out of the north. A wolf howled in the swamp ahead and a war horn blew from behind. A choice of fates. “Go, Reev,” Gastreel said. He handed him a satchel. “Take this food. Use your waterskin for a drink; the waters of Murk are stagnant and deadly.” He looked nervously into the fetid swamp that surely hid death itself within its eaves. Then, shivering he took a step forward. End of Episode 2 Continued in Episode 3

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