In the days of Elder Earth, many strange beings walked the face of the world who were wise and powerful beyond mortal ken. Descending from the sky in a burst of light they appeared to the infant race of Man as gods, and as such they were worshiped.
These minor gods, enraptured by the beauty of the daughters of men, took them to wife, begetting upon them heroes of great renown and strength, but also all manner of strange, terrible beasts and monsters. The more perverse of the minor gods lay with the beasts of the field who in turn gave birth to foul creatures beyond description. The stench of their corruption soon filled the earth, even to the very gates of Eden itself.
The minor gods began to dictate to men what was right and what was wrong, each according to their own taste or whim. What one said was good, another said was evil and what one praised, another condemned. Wars broke out all across the world as men and monsters battled in the name of their gods for dominion, power, and glory. From their constant strife arose legends, heroes, and villains. It was also a time of terrible cruelty and freedom was yet unborn.
Then Elohim was roused to anger at the world, resolving to destroy it in a great Flood from which only a single family would survive to start over again. The minor gods awoke to their danger, for they had fallen from their First Estate and only if they were worshiped as gods could they be gods. If the world and all who were in it died in the Flood, they too would die.
At the behest of the strongest of them, the minor gods laid aside their quarrels and were met in a great conclave. They came to together and debated long and hard on ways to overthrow Elohim but all their schemes came to naught. Finally, Ptah rose and spoke.
“We can not survive in this universe,” it(?) said. “Elohim is too strong to overthrow, and if our worshipers are thrown down, so will it be with us. It has already been said we can not stop the coming tide, therefore let us not waste time trying. Instead, let us create our own universe where we can live and prosper.” Then Ptah was seated and spoke no more.
Now Katribee arose to speak in evil, silken tones. “And in this other universe, who will worship us? Without worshipers, we will die. This plan is futile and meaningless. You would have us trade one doom for another.” Then Katribee sat and Yomyael rose.
“Your words are true, Katribee, but so are the words of Ptah. We must leave this universe and we must have worshipers. Therefore, let us take with us such true believers as can be persuaded to make the journey with us. Let us do it quickly for the pillars at the foundations of the earth have already begun to tremble and our time grows short.” Yomyael sat as murmurs of agreement rumbled on all sides.
So the minor gods were agreed and as Elohim had foreseen from The Beginning, the great project was set in motion. The new universe reflected the lesser powers of the minor gods and was smaller than the old. It held fewer stars and the laws of nature were subtly changed, but in it, the minor gods would be stronger than before, as would the strange power men called magic.
Vast portals were thrown open between the universes, and all who wished to leave were given safe passage. In that great exodus, even mortal enemies walked quietly side by side. Wizards, powerful and fey, and all the creatures of myth and legend slipped away to disappear for all time. With their passing, and the coming of the Flood, went many things of power and beauty, and magic was no more.
But . . .
. . . the mighty Gates could not be entirely closed from the other side, and none wished to linger to close them from this side. Thus, there are places on Earth that are ill-omened and shunned; places where people, and indeed, whole ships have vanished without a trace. Nor is the passage entirely one way. At times strange, unearthly visions have haunted the dreams of those who slept nearby, and from those dreams have come – stories.
The deer staggered under the impact of the heavy war spear. He regained his balance then stood for a moment as if confused about which way to run. Storm didn't give him time to decide. With an exultant shout he burst from the bushes and flung himself on the stag, slashing savagely with his boot knife.
His quarry lurched under this new impact as the heavy barbarian landed on his back. He recovered quickly, flinging his head viciously from side to side. Storm sucked in his breath with a hiss as the antlers gored his left shoulder. His grip loosened and he felt himself starting to slide. He scrambled madly and his foot found purchase on the spear embedded in the deer, who bleated in sudden pain. Before he could do anything else, Storm lashed out with blinding speed, tearing open the jugular then leaped away, wincing with pain as the shock of landing jarred his wounded shoulder.
Although the stag was clearly dying now, he danced back as it staggered forward several steps before surrendering to the inevitable. It dropped, quivered a time or two then was still.
Storm grinned. A stag this size would feed him for days.
His grin faded however as he surveyed his wound. Attacking with his knife had been foolish. One of the first lessons he'd learned as a child in this world was that even a timid animal will fight like a dragon when cornered. Living here in the civilized south was making him careless. He was lucky to get off so cheaply, with nothing more than a wounded shoulder – it could have been his throat.
Striding back to the bushes where he'd been hiding he stuck in a long arm and pulled out a battered backpack. Pawing through it he pulled out his medicine pouch. Spreading it open revealed the herbs, compresses and bandages that were made up the normal field kit of a T'thalian soldier, left over from his short stint fighting alongside their army as a mercenary. Washing his wound, he applied them with quick, practiced movements.
At more than four cubits and a span in height, Storm was two talents weight of pure muscle and power. His skin was bronzed from years in the sun. His shoulder length, black hair moved gently in the breeze as he dressed out the fallen deer. His short beard lent his face a rugged aspect but couldn't hide his evident intelligence. He was dressed in the normal attire of his barbarian tribe to the north – leather vest, pants and high laced boots. Steel bracers covered his wrists and forearms. A great hand-and-a-half sword, sometimes know as a bastard sword, dangled at his side; the brilliant sapphire set in the pommel matched his piercing, blue eyes.
By sunset the deer had been expertly butchered. Small strips of meat hung drying over the fire while Storm tore at a thick steak, his strong teeth ripping off huge hunks of meat that he washed down with enormous pulls at his wine skin. His war-horse, a bay stallion, stood guard just beyond the fire. Specter's flashing hooves and vicious teeth promised certain, painful death to any foolish enough to approach without his master's consent.
As Storm hung new strips of meat over the fire he reflected that the stag hadn't really fought like a dragon; not like the one that destroyed his adopted village anyway.
He'd only been ten – according to appearance – when it happened.
Situated on the lower slopes of the great Rampart Mountains that spanned the northern edge of Gaia, their village was a hundred leagues northwest of the Shimmerwood where the elves of old still held power, creating many things of art and beauty.
A hunting party spotted the dragon three day's ride from their village, slowly moving west. They'd all but killed their horses getting back to warn the Clan. The Chief ordered huge crossbows – so powerful it took four strong men to cock them – set up around the village. Balanced on Dwarven-crafted swivel mounts, the sky weapons could be aimed and fired by a small child if need be. Great metal plates were erected to protect the mighty weapons from the dragon's breath. Spears, arrows, and swords were dipped in poison. The Bear Clan normally shunned the use of poison, deeming it a coward's weapon, but faced with a threat of this magnitude they had no alternative. Cauldrons and pots of water were placed around the village at strategic points to fight the fires sure to be started by the monster. Women and children quickly packed their belongings and took shelter in a nearby series of caves, along with what few pets and livestock they had. Warriors gathered to discuss strategy and tactics, sharpen their blades and receive a death blessing from the Chief. The preparations continued throughout the night into the next day.
Like the other boys his (apparent) age, Storm felt the thrill of danger run through him. He trembled with a dizzy combination of fear and anticipation. Dragons were rare dangerous creatures. Seeing one was a once-in-a-lifetime event and despite the danger to the Clan he looked forward to catching a glimpse of the mighty beast. He and the other boys traded stories in excited whispers about previous dragon sightings and the legendary heroes who’d slain them. Confined to the safety of the caves however, boredom soon set in as the hours dragged on with no sight of the great beast. Even the warriors standing ready for battle soon retreated to the shade to escape the sun.
In the late afternoon a heavily injured man stumbled into their encampment in tattered burned clothing. He introduced himself as Blaze, and told them he was part of a small trade caravan that had been enslaved by an evil sorcerer. Shouts of anger greeted these words, for the Bear Clan shared the natural hatred all barbarians hold toward those who practice the black arts.
But Blaze's story wasn't done.
They were headed west along the trade route from the Marilas Federation which ran between the northern edge of the Shimmerwood and the southern foothills of the Ramparts. Early that morning the sorcerer had spotted a great dragon in the sky overhead. Using all his black arts he attempted to destroy the monster but to no avail. The dragon killed him and everyone else in the caravan – including Blaze’s family – before flying off the way it had come. Although victorious, the dragon was sorely wounded by the sorcerer's spells and was flying badly. Blaze had escaped but had no memory of how for terror had robbed him of his senses.
While the Clan sympathized with Blaze's loss, they were nonetheless elated at the dragon's departure. Well prepared though they were, many warriors were certain to have died in the dragon's attack. There was therefore great cause for celebration.
The sky weapons were dismantled and the village quickly restored to order. An ox was slaughtered and roasted. Huge casks of ale were rolled out. Soon the sounds of laughter and merriment rang through the night. The Clan comforted Blaze as best they could, assuring him he would always have a place in their village if he so chose. The celebration went on far into the small hours of the morning, and Storm, exhausted by the events of the day, retired to his furs before the night was half done.
He awoke in the predawn darkness to attend the call of nature from too much ale. At a spring just outside the village he dunked his head into the icy water to still its dull throbbing. Shivering, he climbed the small hill that separated the village from the spring. He was about to start down when he spied Blaze standing by the ashes of the previous night's bonfires, his head cocked in a curious listening posture. He paused, every instinct screaming danger.
Nothing happened for a long moment.
Then . . .
Blaze seemed to pulsate, like a child's balloon inflating and deflating. A low hum raised the hair on the nape of his neck as a sickly green light formed around the man below. Before Storm's astonished eyes he suddenly expanded and grew. His clothes melted into his skin, which was now covered with reddish-brown scales. His neck stretched like taffy, wings sprouted from his back. A tail lashed behind him as he dropped to all four legs. Within seconds an enormous dragon - higher at the shoulder than ten men - towered over the defenseless village. A serpentine neck rose to a head larger than a house. Before Storm could think to cry out a warning the gigantic mouth opened to belch forth fire and ruin.
It couldn't be called a battle, or even a massacre. Such words would only trivialize the events of that horrible day. Incendia Clibanus, for the monster shouted his true name with terrible delight, was destruction beyond reason, insanity given life and form. The beating of his wings was a hurricane. The world exploded in flame, accompanied by the hideous bellowing laughter of the monster. Chaos ran riot as if a demon from Hell stalked the land. Doomed Clansmen were incinerated as they stumbled forth to do battle. The screams of the dying were choked off by the flames and rending teeth of the monster that slew them at will. The blinding wind from his wings hurled horses through the air like chaff. The ground was red with an ocean of blood. The stink of burning hair and flesh filled the air. In vain they tried to escape but Incendia Clibanus turned and struck, faster than a striking cobra, the ground shuddering with the force of his blows
Storm never understood how he survived. Perhaps the beast didn’t see a horrified child crouched on the hill. Perhaps he ran and hid in the freezing spring below. Perhaps God took pity and shielded him or perhaps it was no more than the blind luck of a drunkard who lies laughing in a ditch while the battle rages around him.
There were no answers, just the frightened whimper of a child waking to a village that no longer existed; the monster long gone.
Numbly he circled the mounds of nameless rubble. Disjointed images filtered through his shocked disbelief. A melted sword. A severed arm, burned and charred. A cup miraculously untouched, half full of ale. A child's toy, flattened by the monster's weight. The hindquarters of a horse embedded in stone by unimaginable power. He saw these things through dull, lifeless eyes.
Acrid smoke stung his nostrils.
He salvaged a spear and canteen from the devastation, more from instinct than any real desire to live. After a nameless time he found himself wandering far from the village. He started to go back then realized there was no point. He turned away, accepting the savage wilderness as his new home.
As the distance to his village grew, sanity began to return. With it came a cold fury that grew until it threatened to drive him to his knees. Fury that such a monster could exist, fury at the gullibility of his adopted people that led to their utter destruction, fury at himself for failing to warn the village in the instant before the dragon's attack. It grew until he could contain it no more and screamed his rage at the uncaring heavens above.
Never again, he swore.
Never again will I hesitate in the face of evil. Never again.
For five years he lived alone. Strong and overlarge for his age, he had always been clumsy with a spear. But hunger lent new skill to his arm. Soon, anything in range he could hit, no matter how small the target or how quickly it moved. He learned the silent patience of the predator that could crouch motionless for hours then explode into furious action at the sight of prey. Like the great northern bears he turned over logs for the insects that lived under them and scooped fish out of the water with his bare hands. His senses grew sharper with each passing day. He learned to track his prey for hours by scent alone. His ears could pick up the slightest movement in the forest. Like the wolves he could run for hours without tiring. Without ever intending it, he became every inch the savage barbarian legend had painted his people to be.
In the summer of what looked to be his fifteenth year he came across a trade caravan camped for the night on the banks of a river. At first he'd thought to raid them for weapons and food. Reason asserted itself quickly though. Caravans traveled through dangerous territory all the time, prepared for trouble at a moment's notice. If he was discovered armed guards and trained dogs would be set upon him. He was powerful, but only one man.
His growing sense of isolation also counseled a different approach. Loneliness was pressing hard on him. After five years by himself he found himself longing for companionship. The sound of a human voice other than his own had become more precious than gold.
He decided to try joining them.
The next morning a startled caravan leader found a half-naked barbarian crouched beside the fire warming his hands, weapons laid carefully out of reach in an obvious attempt at peace. The grizzled old man was impressed at the stealth that let him into camp undetected and the bravery that made him stay to face the consequences of his actions. He crouched beside the barbarian youth to speak to him at length.
When the caravan left that morning, Storm went with it.
He worked first as a general hand, chopping wood, hunting food, caring for the horses, loading and unloading wagons. Soon he became a night guard. He learned to wield a sword in a school where failure meant instant death. He picked up some scars but they were few and far between. His intelligence, unusual in a barbarian, made him a quick study. He learned everything they shoved at him. His savage upbringing and natural prowess lent him a speed and stamina that was the envy of everyone, and the bane of his enemies. In battle he easily wielded in one hand, weapons that lesser men must wield with two. He trained himself to use a dagger or short sword in his left hand while swinging his regular sword in his right, a style of fighting which baffled his many opponents.
His fighting skill soon earned him great renown among the caravan leaders who traveled the trade routes throughout the north and the east. They began struggling to outbid each other for his services for no caravan had ever fallen while he rode with it. He was given command of great numbers of soldiers. With authority came responsibility and the need to read and write. He learned quickly and was given still greater responsibility.
He rode in caravans that visited all the great cities up and down the shores of the Overdark Ocean. He rode through the streets of inland cities as well, reaching as far west across the River Lands as Tronia, on the southern tip of the Sorgo Mountains that came down from the mighty Ramparts and south to Nahor, on the shores of Namak Lake and across the great plains of the Biqah, which the tribes there pronounced bĕ-kä'. He’d even become blood brothers with Crowsotarri, the chieftain of one of the many Biqah tribes (the prairie folk took their name from the land, so Biqah meant both the prairie and the people). For ten years he traveled with first one caravan then another until his purse was heavy with coin.
Then in the T'thalian Empire he'd nearly joined their army when they went to war with their ancient enemy, Carrzulm. The island empire depended heavily on the annual whale harvest to support their teeming cities while the corrupt Carrzulmans killed them only for the perfumes they could make from the scent glands. It was a war which had been fought many times before, and as always, both sides paid handsomely for mercenaries who could turn the tide of battle. His purse was filled to overflowing after a mere handful of battles.
All in all, Storm reflected as he hung more meat over the fire, he'd seen more of Gaia than any ten men put together. His current mission, to lead a small caravan from Koontanrinobel to Robling, the capital of Ingold, was a bit of a milk run for him. The mountain kingdom was heavily traveled by most caravans and well known to him; he'd been through it many times. What was intriguing was the princely sum he'd been offered; one hundred gold coins, usually known as crowns. At the standard exchange rates it worked out to 5000 copper pieces. Since most inns charged 5 coppers for dinner and a night's lodging, it meant he could afford to live high on the hog for over two-and-a-half years without lifting so much as a finger! It made him wonder what was so important – or dangerous. Not that he really cared; he'd lived with danger his whole life. He could handle it, assuming he didn't get killed by the first rabbit he encountered along the way, he chuckled ruefully to himself.
Over the next several days he sought out wild boars, even a bear, polishing up long unused woodland skills. He ran through the mountains with Specter at his heels, pushing himself to the limit. By the time he rode down out of the Coast Mountains he once more felt confident of his ability to handle himself and his surroundings. In high spirits he approached Koontanrinobel for his next assignment, steadfastly ignoring the still small voice that argued he was wasting his life doing the same thing over and over again – just like before.
Koontanrinobel was a fair sized city, typical for this part of Gaia, perched on a low cliff overlooking the Tambar River where it tumbled out of the mountains in an icy flood. Fields of corn and wheat surrounded the city, coming right up to the cut block, granite walls. A well-traveled road cut through the fields. Following it he came to the city gates. Guards posted there eyed him curiously but made no move to stop him. Lone barbarians were rare this far south and were usually regarded as curiosities rather than threats. Besides, the last ten years made him appear more the sell-sword than the barbarian.
Inside he was assaulted by the hustle and bustle of the city. He stared openly at the sights, ignoring people who stared at him in return. After the quiet solitude of the mountains the city seemed to ring with noise. Vendors cried their wares to anyone who came near while children played and shouted underfoot. Spicy odors wafted through the streets from the open doors of shops and inns. Musicians played on street corners, hoping to impress passersby with their talent, and perhaps earn a few coins. Carts and wagons, piled high with a thousand bundles and crates blocked the way while their drivers hurled colorful oaths at each other in particular, and the populace in general. Gaudy colors ran riot as if each person sought to out dress the next. Bemused, Storm shook his head. City living had never had any appeal for him. Why would anyone choose to live in one, he wondered?
Nudging Specter out of the traffic he reined in at the side of the street to examine the map he'd been given, trying to match the confusion around him to the scratching on the parchment.
Before leaving Vaneer he'd made known his intention of heading west. He'd been contacted by a man who worked for a merchant named Sodan, who lived in Koontanrinobel and was sending a small caravan to Ingold on private and likely, dangerous business. His reputation must have proceeded him for he'd been offered the position at once. He'd been given the map, a letter of introduction, and instructions that if he could be at Sodan's by the middle of the month his place on the caravan was assured.
Following the map he soon left the business district and found himself wending his way through the wealthier neighborhoods. His presence here was regarded with suspicion for he obviously didn't belong. A curving street ended at a large, ornate building. Guards in heavy plate armor regarded him darkly as he approached. He swung down out of the saddle to put them at ease. One of the guards, a tall, dark haired man, advanced to meet him.
A gauntleted hand barred his path. “What's your business?”
Storm stopped. “I was told that I could find employment on a caravan going to Ingold,” he said. “Ryman gave me this map and letter of introduction,” he added, holding them up.
The guard held out his hand. “Let me see them.”
“Who are you?”
“I'm Thomas Keener, Sergeant of the Guard. Now, hand them over!” he snapped.
Storm hesitated, then passed the papers over with a shrug.
Thomas studied them intently for a minute, hazel eyes moving quickly. “Looks alright,” he finally conceded, “but I want to check it out first. Gregory! Keep an eye on him. The rest of you too.” He disappeared into the building.
A man of indeterminate age, most likely Gregory, moved forward to take Thomas' place but said nothing. None of the others seemed disposed to talk, and Storm was never one to engage in mindless chatter, so they simply stood there looking at each other in the morning sun.
He was already beginning to sweat as the sun climbed the sky and he wondered at the guards in their bulky armor. How did they stand it in the afternoon heat? If Sodan wanted him to wear plate armor the deal was off. He'd rather fight another dragon than climb into one of those clanking sweat boxes. He'd worn heavy armor a time or two in the past and hated it with a passion.
After twenty minutes or so the door opened abruptly and Thomas came out, followed by an unusually handsome man in brown robes who spoke in a pleasant tenor.
“My uncle wishes to speak to you at once. Please come with me,” he said. “Thomas will stable your horse for you.”
Storm nodded, more at ease now. He gave Specter's reins to the lanky sergeant. “Don't try to ride him,” he warned. “He'll tear your throat out.”
“I know the type,” Thomas smiled ruefully.
Storm smiled back, liking the tall guard in spite of his earlier manner. He turned and followed the robed man into the house as Thomas led Specter away. Once inside he examined his guide more closely. He was of medium height, perhaps in his mid-thirties with brown hair and eyes. His hair was well kept though somewhat long. In contrast to most men of the day his face was hairless, making his features look strangely thin. Above his eyes his thin eyebrows were arched just enough to be noticeable. The richly appointed foyer in which they stood was well lighted and Storm saw lines of care worn on the man's face.
“This way,” he said, indicating a flight of stairs. “Sodan has heard much about you from Rogar and is most anxious to meet you.”
Storm nodded absently. Rogar had been one of the better caravan leaders he'd worked for, hard but fair. His recommendation was a pleasure.
They topped the stairs and turned down a wide hallway.
“I, by the way,” the man continued, “am Ralt Gaither, Sodan's nephew and wizard.”
Storm slammed to a halt in sudden shock. A wizard!?
Revulsion swept through him as ingrained reflexes against the Dark Arts had his sword in his hand almost before he was aware of it. Ralt must have heard or sensed something amiss, for he leapt aside a moment before Storm's blade swept down on the place where he'd been standing. Angrily he incanted, his hands making strange passes through the air.
Storm sensed power hurdling toward him and bellowed as he threw himself aside. He wasn't fast enough and part of it caught his leg. It went numb beneath him, refusing to work, sending him crashing into the wall. He heaved himself upright to continue the fight, lurching forward to behead his enemy with a single stroke of his sword but Ralt evaded him easily. The wizard began chanting another spell. Snarling defiance Storm hurled his sword at him in a flat spin, forcing Ralt to duck. The wizard's concentration on his spell was lost along with the spell itself. Storm whipped out his short sword with a savage laugh. Feeling began to return to his leg as his incredible recuperative powers went to work. Brandishing the sword he crouched to spring.
The deep voice boomed in the hallway, startling him. He froze, searching for the source.
Behind the wizard a large set of double doors at the end of the hallway stood open, framing a short, impossibly wide man. Beside him was an elderly man dressed in expensive robes.
Ralt glanced over his shoulder at the short man in evident relief. “Durin! Get out here! This idiot's trying to kill me!”
Durin rumbled laughter through his beard, “Small wonder. He's a northern barbarian.”
Ralt was outraged. “And that excuses murder?” he hissed.
Durin shook his block-like head as he and the old man came down the hall. “Of course not. But those evil wizards, magicians, and sorcerers that now and then we've been unable to kill, but only drive out of the land, usually go north. Those workers of the Black Arts are the only ones Storm and his kind have ever known. Put yourself in his position,” he advised. “With a history like that, is it any wonder he attacked you?”
Ralt scowled down at him, not entirely convinced. “How sad; my deepest sympathies and all that. But what if he'd succeeded in killing me before you got here? You didn't see how fast he is!”
“Rogar did not lie then,” the old man murmured.
Durin glanced up at him. “As I tried to tell you,” he rumbled.
The old man dropped a hand on Durin's shoulder. “Stand easy old friend. I seldom fail to heed your advice as you well know.”
Durin nodded and started to speak but Storm had had enough. “What is all this?” he demanded, straightening up from his fighting stance.
“A thousand pardons,” the old man exclaimed. “I'm Sodan, called the Fairhand, master of this establishment. Durin here is my chief adviser, and Captain of the Guard. Ralt, well, you've already, umm, met.” Durin and Ralt bowed formally.
Storm ignored the wizard. “What were you saying about driving all the wizards to the north?” he asked Durin.
Durin shrugged shoulders that were more appropriate for someone Storm's size. “Not all of them; just the bad ones.”
“What other kind are there?” Storm snorted in disgust.
Ralt bristled at the insult but Durin ignored him. “Good or evil is in the man, not the magic. Magic is nothing more than a tool, like a plow or a sword.” He bent down. “Speaking of which,” he straightened, “here's yours. Better put it away,” he advised as he handed it over.
Sodan and Ralt tensed as Storm held both swords for a moment, then let out their breath as he slid them into their scabbards with a scrap of metal on metal.
“Well!” Sodan said brightly, clapping his hands together, “now that that's all settled, shall we retire to my study to finish this conversation in more comfortable surroundings? And you men can return to your posts,” he added, nodding to someone behind Storm.
Storm turned. Behind him were more than a dozen men lowering powerful crossbows. Hmm, he thought, odd these city dwellers might be, but the guards certainly knew their business. He had no idea how long they'd been there, and he hadn't heard them approach. Impressive.
He followed Sodan down the hall, keeping a wary eye on Ralt. Durin's assurances were all very nice but he'd heard entirely too many stories of horror to feel comfortable around anyone who practiced magic. If Sodan wanted to keep one around that was his business but Storm made up his mind to have nothing to do with him.
They entered a large well-appointed room that was perhaps forty cubits long by thirty cubits wide. At one end a large fireplace crackled and popped, ringed by overstuffed chairs, a small table standing by each one. The center of the room was dominated by a tinkling fountain surrounded by leather bound couches and low tables. At the far end, opposite the fireplace was a tremendous desk, lit by hanging lamps and sunlight pouring in through windowed doors which led to a large balcony overlooking a central courtyard. The walls were lined with bookcases and small potted plants. Despite it's size, the room had a comfortable feel to it, redolent with the smell of fine leather and lemon scented wood.
Sodan led them to the couches. They all sat, giving Storm an opportunity to scrutinize his companions. Durin was barely 3-and-a-third cubits tall, his curly hair and beard matching his snapping, black eyes. His shoulders were abnormally wide for someone of his stature. He was barrel-chested, his arms and legs heavily muscled. His skin was a deep chestnut brown and his face had a peculiar set to it Storm had never seen.
Sodan by contrast was tall and lean. Like Ralt (the family resemblance was now obvious) he was brown eyed and fair skinned. His short hair and beard, once brown, were shot through with gray. Storm judged him to be some years past middle age, but well preserved.
Servants brought in cool drinks and tobacco. Storm hadn't had a chance to buy any in Vaneer and had missed his after dinner pipe. All of them lit up and soon wreaths of aromatic smoke filled the air.
“I have no doubt about your skill in combat,” Sodan began, “but I do have a few concerns. If I take you on the trip to Ingold, you will be working with Ralt. Can you overcome your prejudice, understandable though it is, for the duration of our journey?”
Storm's eyes narrowed as he considered it. “You said 'working with him'. Exactly what does that mean?”
“A fair question. Durin?”
“I have to stay here to oversee business while Sodan is gone,” he rumbled. “While my men are good enough in the city, I fear for them in the wilds beyond. Many sections of the road have fallen into a sad state. Several small villages along the way have been destroyed by highwaymen and monsters of various sorts. Manticores live in the Ridge Mountains, not to mention wolves coming down from the higher elevations as winter approaches. The men need someone leading them who is used to that sort of thing. Who better than a barbarian?”
Storm shifted in his seat. He was barbarian only by adoption but he knew all about the road to Ingold from previous trips; it had steadily degraded as the years went by. Between Manticores and wolves he wasn't sure which was worse. He'd dealt with both before and didn't care for either of them. “Fine. But where does the wizard come into it?” His appraisal of Durin went up another notch. If Sodan felt safe enough to leave his house and fortune in his care while he was gone, he was a formidable opponent indeed.
“Ralt will be responsible for the cargo, while you will be in charge of physical security. He can also give warning of approaching danger. Some of his long distance spells are quite good.”
Storm was puzzled. “Physical security? What other kind is there?”
“Ahem,” Ralt cleared his throat. Storm reluctantly gave him his attention. “I believe I can answer that.” He looked at Sodan who nodded silently. “The cargo as Durin puts it, is not your usual pots and pans sort of thing, or even gold and jewels. It's something much more precious – Sodan's daughter. Well, her body at any rate.”
“Uh, sort of.”
“Hunh?” Storm stared at him. “How can she be sort of dead. You either are or you aren't.” He'd done enough fighting over the years to know that much at least.
“Krista is actually my granddaughter but I’ve raised her since my son and daughter-in-law died when she was less than a month old. She recently became deathly ill,” Sodan said quietly. “The closest person capable of curing her is Lamriack, a very powerful priest in the service of the Lord of Light. Lamriack lives in Robling, the capital of Ingold. But Krista would never have survived the journey; it's too long. So, Ralt arranged to have her soul removed from her body and placed in a special container . . .” He trailed off into grieving silence.
“Her body,” Ralt continued for him, “went into a death-like state where it does not age and the illness is stopped. The moment her soul returns to her body the illness will recommence and soon kill her. But only when body and soul are one can she be cured.”
Storm was aghast. Lamriack? That meddling fool? He’d first met the priest when he was seven summers old, at a spring festival put on by the horse tribes of the Biqah. The Bear Clan went southwest every year to trade furs for weapons and armor. It was a combination trade fair and festival that left the children free to wander through the myriad stalls put up by the countless vendors. In one of the many public tents he’d come upon a young priest conducting a naming ceremony for a Biqah child. Fascinated, he’d hung around to watch.
After the ceremony the priest glanced over at him then did a double take. Lamriack had stared at him as if he was some bizarre freak. Storm sensed Lamriack could tell what he was, or more accurately, wasn’t, and quickly become uncomfortable under the priest’s quizzical gaze. Throughout the rest of the festival Lamriack kept seeking him out, trying to talk to him, always with that same puzzled, questioning look. The next year Lamriack had been accompanied by an older priest, pointing Storm out to him. The older man had the same reaction as Lamriack. They’d hounded him throughout that year’s festival, as well as the next, and the one after that as well.
Now he had to deal with Lamriack all over again, as well as a devious wizard? Lamriack was one of the many reasons he didn't permit anyone to talk about religion when he was around. He ground his teeth in frustration. Did he really want this job after all? “Do we have to be there when Lamriack does his voodoo?”
Ralt hesitated at the unfamiliar term, but Storm's sneering tone made his meaning crystal clear. “No,” he answered slowly. “Anyone can return Krista's soul to her body. Merely open the container and they will join together on their own. As for curing her illness, he can do that whether we’re there or not.”
“Then why do you need to come along?” Storm pressed him hotly.
“Because there might be others who wish to inhabit her body,” Ralt replied seriously. “Perhaps some poor soul who died young and wishes to live again. There are any number of possibilities. Then too, her soul is at risk. It’s possible that a demon from Hell might notice her exposed condition and try to drag her soul down to Hell. It’s to guard against such things that I must go.”
Though the study was warm, Storm shivered in supernatural fear. He might not believe in the gods, The Six as they were called, and all their theological baggage, but deep down in his heart he knew that whatever they really were, they were still out there. Fighting Manticores and wolves was one thing. Such battles had been part of his daily existence for the past ten years. But . . . a demon? A real demon from Hell? He couldn't get his mind around it. “You're going to guard against that?”
Ralt nodded somberly.
“What happens if a demon actually shows up?” Just saying the words sent another shiver down his spine.
“Then I'll fight it the best I can,” Ralt told him.
“And if you lose?”
The wizard locked brown eyes with his blue ones. “In that case,” he swallowed hard, “Krista and I will be damned to Hell for all eternity.”
“How did I let myself get talked into this mess?” Storm cursed as he tightened the straps on Specter's saddle.
Thomas, leaning against the doorway, grinned at him. “You're a sucker for a sob story, Cap'em. Barbarians always are.”
Storm glowered at his lanky second-in-command, “Yeah? So what's your excuse?”
“I'm a free booting adventurer Cap'em. I go where the wind blows me.”
“Terrific.” Storm waved him away. “Go bother someone else for a while. I'm busy.”
“Yes Sir, Cap'em.” Thomas sketched a salute and sauntered out.
Storm shook his head. The man was an uncanny archer but other than that he was an irresponsible lunatic. His facade as a stern guardsman was strictly for show. Beneath it was a practical joker who enjoyed shocking people with his irreverent attitudes and comments.
Storm still wasn't sure he wanted this job but it was a little late to back out now. He should have left the moment he learned the wizard would be coming along and he definitely should have backed out when Ralt started talking about demons. His casual assumption of damnation in the event of failure had shaken Storm more than he cared to admit. “Thrice damned” was a curse so old no one knew where it came from, but the prospect of real actual damnation cast it in a whole new light. Ralt's willingness to face it made a mockery of Storm's own bravery. The idea that a thrice dam–, a weakling sorcerer, might have more courage than he did stuck in his craw. In the end it had been that more than anything that made up his mind for him. Oh, he'd argued against it, tried to back out several times but they were halfhearted attempts at best. Deep down he knew he'd take the job even if Sodan hadn't offered him such an outrageous price. If he lived to collect it he'd be well off.
If he lived.
That was looking more unlikely every day. He had to lead a bunch of greenhorns through several hundred leagues of the roughest terrain Gaia had to offer. Since a league was commonly held to be the distance a man could walk in an hour, it was quite a journey. He'd thought it would be a normal caravan of the type he was used to, with a small army of guards at his command. Even a small caravan could command upwards of 50 to 70 guards. Instead it was one wagon carrying the body of the sort of dead girl, twelve mounted soldiers, the wizard, and Sodan.
Storm had judged him to be middle aged or slightly beyond rather than the one hundred and ninety-four that turned out to be the truth. Most people in Gaia lived 200 years or so, which meant Sodan already had one foot in the grave. A hundred and ninety-four year old man riding through the countryside in a wagon with winter just around the corner? Insanity!
And just last night they'd received confirmation of not one, but two Manticores up in the Ridge Mountains. Probably a mated pair, which meant they'd be twice as vicious as normal. Manticores were large and heavy, eight full talents of winged fury. If they had young to protect they'd spare no effort in the process, even to the point of suicidal attacks. Anymore of Thomas' “good news,” Storm reflected and he'd have to hurt somebody, maybe several somebodies.
“Well, Specter, we sure got ourselves into a bad one this time didn't we?” The big bay whickered reassuringly, nudging his hand for a treat. Storm absently dug out a piece of rock candy for him, lost in thought. He'd spent most of the last few days going over the supply list with Ralt and Thomas. Ralt had marveled over a barbarian who could read and write until Storm sourly reminded him of his years as a guard commander on countless caravans. “With that many men and wagons you have to be able to read and write just to keep track of everything. No one can memorize that much stuff.”
Ralt nodded agreement. “Of course, of course. I was just surprised, that's all.”
“Some of your own people might steal you blind if you can't keep track of your inventory,” Storm continued pedantically. “Or try to pretend they didn't get paid and come sucking up to you for more money. You'll go broke in a hurry if you don't have it written down.” He stopped himself before he said too much.
“Sounds like a chancy way to make a living,” Thomas quipped.
Storm glanced sideways at him. “A man who bets a week's wages on a single throw of the dice calls caravaning chancy?” Ralt snorted. On this he and Storm were in perfect agreement. They both detested gambling and regarded as foolish those who indulged in it.
“Those dice were loaded!” Thomas retorted hotly. “If they hadn't cheated I'd have won. I was on a streak.”
“Spare me,” Storm said quickly, raising a hand. “We've already heard the story a hundred times.”
They'd continued on the down the list, adding here, deleting there until Storm was satisfied they hadn't forgotten anything or taken too much. Three days of work had left them with what he hoped was the right balance.
“Hey, Cap'em! You coming or not?”
The shout jarred him out of his reverie. He waved acknowledgment to Thomas then swung up into the saddle. Specter sidled sideways before settling down, his hooves clattering in the predawn stillness. “Is everyone here?” he asked, looking around.
“They're all here,” Durin rumbled from his place near the wagon where he was exchanging final partings with Sodan. The short man had turned out to be a Dwarf; a race he'd had heard much about but never met. They were a stout people, doughty fighters who even their enemies respected. If half the tales about them were true he was indeed sorry Durin wouldn't be coming with them.
Durin grabbed Specter's reins. “Take care of him,” he said, indicating Sodan, “or I'll part your hair with an axe.” Sodan was making the trip against Durin's advice. Although his voice was light, his eyes betrayed his concern.
Storm nodded. “I'll guard him as best I can,” he replied soberly.
Durin searched his eyes for a moment more, then sighed heavily, “More I cannot ask. Fair thee well.” He swung away, bellowing orders to open the gates.
The gates before the wagon swung ponderously open. He spurred Specter through to take the lead. Behind him whips cracked over the wagon team, there was a flurry of shouted commands, a jingling of harnesses and the little caravan lurched after him into the darkness. The guards, mounted on light war-horses, closed in on the wagon in double file, Thomas bringing up the rear.
If any of them had thought to look back they would have seen Durin, a black shadow in the torchlight, watching them out of sight like some eldritch carving from a forgotten age.
Storm led his small troop through the quiet streets, surprising an occasional early riser. The grinding wagon wheels and clopping hooves echoed eerily back from the buildings on either side of the narrow street like muted thunder. Even the business district was still. Sleepy guards at the city gates grumbled at the early hour but opened the portals soon enough and they passed out of the city to the open road beyond.
Storm inhaled a huge lung full of clean morning air, crisp with the smell of dew covered fields. Ah, he thought, this is more like it. The past week living in the city had been torture to his soul. In Vaneer there had at least been clean, if cold, sea breezes. Here, behind the high city walls, no breath of fresh air could penetrate. Odors hung stale and heavy in the streets for days on end. He felt as though he'd been released from prison. Once again he wondered how anyone could stand to live in such a place.
The small band moved away from the city, quickly falling into their assigned places. Once beyond the fields surrounding the city, outriders, two to a side, were sent out to give early warning of danger. The men grumbled at these measures while still so close to Koontanrinobel but Storm insisted. Too often he'd seen supposedly safe areas turn into ambushes. With this small a force he was taking no chances.
At noon they halted at a small inn to eat. One of the guards, Boldric, was an experienced wagon builder. He checked out the wagon while they ate. It was new and heavily loaded. There had been no time for a shake-down trip to check it for potential weaknesses. If it was going to fail, Storm wanted to find out about it now while there was still time to turn back. Boldric pronounced it fit and they were soon back on the road. Storm was pleased to see the outriders taking their place without prompting.
The road was well traveled along this way and they passed various travelers throughout the day. The terrain about them was a gentle series of wooded foothills descending from the mountains. Dappled sunlight, streaming down through the leaves lit the road while flocks of birds, preparing for their fall migration flitted across their path or chattered angrily at them from the safety of the treetops. The Tambar River chuckled alongside the road, wandering off now and then only to return each time. The air was alive with a thousand different sounds. He drank it all in like a sponge.
Toward evening the road turned sharply to the west. Outside Koontanrinobel, the North Fork of the Tambar had joined the South Fork to begin its rush to the Overdark Ocean some six hundred leagues to the south around the southern tip of the Coast Mountains. There the Overdark mixed its waters with the eastern portion of the Battle Ocean, the Milchamah. It was here that the great whales wintered with their young. Ships from the far distant Carrzulman Empire to the west, came here, around the Serpent Peninsula, the bulging tip of which was called the Unknown Land, to hunt the young calves for the perfume that could be made from them and sold in the decadent markets of their ancient land.
T'thalian warships followed the whales each year to protect them from the Carrzulman slaughter. T’thalia and her subject islands depended on the annual whale harvest for food and bitterly opposed the killing of calves for perfume. In recent years warships from Carrzulm had met the T'thalians in those waters in open battle.
T’thalia and Carrzulm were ancient enemies and he quickly left their service when it became clear the skirmishing was escalating toward all-out war once again. In Vaneer there had been dark talk of kindred lost in battle, and still darker talk of vengeance. Niran, the Imperial Sword Master, had tried to persuade Storm to stay but he wanted no part of someone else's fight, particularly one which seemed to reoccur every ten or fifteen years.
The Tambar was low this late in the season and sunset found them well away from the road, safely across the river and facing the Plains of Aroon. The outriders had brought down several rabbits during the day and Storm ordered them roasted while poles and fishing nets were brought out. He wanted them to live off the land as much as possible to conserve their meager food supplies. One wagon could carry only so much, and Krista's “coffin” took up a considerable amount of space.
The Tambar yielded a fair catch, enough to fill all the men to bursting. Although Sodan protested that the rough ride in the wagon had not tired him, he soon retired. The others quickly followed suit. Within a short time after eating Storm and Ralt were the only two still awake. Storm had assigned himself first watch but Ralt was under no such obligation.
He looked over at the wizard who was staring pensively into the fire. “You should get some sleep,” he said finally. “Tomorrow will be a long day.”
Ralt smiled briefly. “I'm not tired. Driving a wagon doesn’t take much effort you know.” He craned his head back to look up at the stars. “Besides, it's rather pretty. It's been so long since I was a kid I'd forgotten how bright the stars are when you get away from the city lights.”
Surprised into continuing the conversation with his unwelcome companion, Storm asked, “Where were you raised that you saw the stars at night?”
“A little village called Crendal, about a hundred leagues north of here. My people were ranchers; raised sheep and cattle mostly. I used to sit up at night with our herds and try to count the stars.” Ralt laughed softly. “I kept losing my place. Couldn't remember if I'd counted this star or that one.”
Storm stared at him. Ralt certainly wasn't like any wizard he'd ever heard of! “But . . . why would a rancher want to study the Blac . . . uh, study magic?”
Ralt glanced at him mischievously. “The 'Black Arts' you started to say?”
Embarrassed without quite knowing why, Storm nodded.
The wizard smiled, enjoying his embarrassment. “Accident mostly. My mother died giving birth to me and my father blamed me for it. He told me a thousand times if it weren't for me she'd still be alive. So, my grandfather's brother, my great uncle” – he jerked at thumb at the wagon where Sodan was sleepiong – “invited me to come work for him when I turned ten, but I didn't know how to read or write, so he hired a wizard to tutor me. Gerald and I spent a lot of time together and, well, one thing led to another. Pretty soon I was a full blown apprentice.” He shrugged. "My eldest brother inherited everything from my father and Krista was Sodan's obvious choice to take over when he died, so, I really didn't have anything else to do.” He shrugged again. “Like I said, accident mostly.”
Storm's mind whirled with astonishment. Wizards were evil fiends, bent on taking over the world; everyone knew that. But Ralt made magic sound like it was just another job, a way to make a living, like being a merchant or something. He said as much to his strange companion.
Ralt nodded agreement. “In a way that's just what it is – a job. I've heard of one magician down south who uses magic to freeze huge tanks of water into ice. They say he makes a very good living as an ice merchant, especially during the summer.”
Storm abandoned the struggle to contain his surprise and anger. “If magic is just a job what about all those evil murderers who’ve been terrorizing people in the north all these years? Was that just a job too?”
“Of course not,” Ralt retorted gently. “Magicians, wizards, sorcerers; whatever you want to call us, are just people like anyone else. Some are good, some are bad. Some of us are extremely skilled while others are as clumsy as the day is long. Now and then someone comes along who is thoroughly rotten, evil to the core.” He grinned wickedly. “Just like some warlords are evil; raiding defenseless villages, raping and killing just for the fun of it. Surely you must have encountered some of them during your travels.”
Storm nodded reluctantly. He'd not only encountered some of them, he'd fought them as well. One in particular, Krekor, had been the meanest, most twisted man he'd ever met. Pillage was too kind a word to describe what he and his men visited on the villages they destroyed. “But at least they fought with honest steel,” he managed finally.
“Really? All the time?” Ralt's voice was pregnant with feeling.
Even as he spoke Storm remembered a stake lined pit that had claimed a number of his men. The stakes had been smeared with dung, causing festering wounds, oozing pus, and infection. Two of his men had begged him to kill them to end their pain. He'd done as they asked, sick to his stomach. He shrugged angrily. “OK. So they didn't always use steel. But at least they didn't use foul sorcery that gives a man no chance to fight back!”
“Is that your only objection?”
“Isn't that enough?”
A predator's smile crossed Ralt's face and Storm was suddenly wary. “What about you? You did pretty good against me the day we met. You dodged one of my spells and spoiled another. If Durin hadn't stopped it, you'd have gotten me.” Ralt’s smile broadened. “If that's not fighting back I don't know what is.” He rose and brushed himself off as Storm sat gaping at him. “Well, I'd better get some sleep. As you pointed out, tomorrow is going to be a long day.” He climbed into the wagon pulling the flaps shut behind him before Storm could think of a suitable reply.
He sat by the fire scowling fiercely, tugging on his beard. Blast that wizard! His silver tongue was almost as potent as his magic. He twisted everything around until it was inside out. He could make a fish believe it had wings.
He needed something to distract him.
He jumped up to walk his rounds about the camp. It was so small it took him less than a minute and to his chagrin there was nothing amiss, nothing to occupy him. Grumbling under his breath he returned to the fire. He sat brooding for a long time before finally concluding it would be wise to ignore the wizard as best he could. The man was infernally devious, and far too quick to be trusted. It was a poor victory but he salvaged from it what he could. He woke the next guard, rolled up in his blanket and was soon fast asleep.
A thunder of hooves jerked him awake. He surged to his feet, flinging his blankets aside, sword already in hand. The sun was beginning to rise, illuminating a squat figure on horseback. He heard a deep rumble of laughter as the figure sawed back on the reins, thudding to a halt beside Storm.
“Ho, Barbarian! Right glad I am to see you too!” Durin shouted joyfully, eyeing Storm's blade askance. “Is it the custom of your people to greet their friends thus?”
Storm cursed, sheathing his sword. “Is it the custom of your people to come charging into camp without warning like a herd of wild buffalo?”
The dwarf roared laughter as he tumbled down off his horse. “Makes for a grand wake-up call doesn't it?”
Storm plopped back down on his blankets. He stared sourly at the bright-eyed dwarf. “I thought you supposed to be in Koontanrinobel,” he yawned hugely, “minding the store or whatever.”
“So did I!”
Sodan climbed down out of the wagon, followed by a sleepy Ralt. “Explain yourself,” the old man snapped, striding forward.
Durin stared back unflinchingly, arm akimbo. “Meredith finally got your letter about Krista. She arrived yesterday afternoon. So, I left her in charge and came to join you.”
Several of the guards, all awake now, snickered at the dwarf's words. Storm thought he heard one of them mutter something that sounded like 'dragon lady'. “Who is Meredith?” he demanded.
Sodan sat down slowly. “My youngest sister, half-sister actually. She's, ah, difficult you might say.” Behind him Ralt rolled his eyes helplessly then disappeared back into the wagon. The old man fixed a beady eye on Durin. “Left her in charge or abandoned her? Tell me the truth.”
Thomas, tousled from sleep, leaned back against one of the horses. “This ought to be interesting,” he yawned.
Durin spread his hands innocently. “Why, when I heard that Meredith had entered the city I –“
“Trembled in fear?” Thomas interjected.
“– wrote her a letter explaining the situation,” the dwarf continued firmly. “Then I gathered my few belongings, saddled a horse, and rode to join you.”
“Snuck out like a thief in the night,” Thomas translated sweetly. The men snickered while Durin glared daggers at the lanky archer.
Sodan saw the question in Storm's eyes. “Thomas has the truth of it, I'll warrant,” he sighed. “My sister really can be quite difficult. The men call her 'the Dragon Lady' I believe.”
Storm nodded sympathetically. “I know the type.” He turned to regard the dwarf speculatively. Durin was dressed in heavy trousers and high boots. A shirt of mail fell almost to his knees and an iron cap covered his head. A tremendous war axe hung at his side to complete the picture. He looked every inch the rugged, mountain dwarf he was supposed to be. If he was half the fighter he appeared, then his presence, whatever the reason, was a welcome addition to the party. But one thing had to be addressed immediately. He turned back to Sodan. “You hired me to lead this journey because Durin couldn't come. His appearance is welcome but our contract still stands. I command.”
Sodan was caught off guard. “I hadn't thought of that,” he admitted. “This has all been rather sudden.”
“I'm perfectly willing to take Storm's orders,” Durin said. “After all, he's been doing this kind of thing for years. And, in the event of an emergency, there must be no doubt who is in charge. People get killed otherwise.”
Storm nodded his thanks but kept his eyes on Sodan. It belatedly occurred to him this was the perfect opportunity to back out of an unhealthy assignment. A glance at Ralt re-emerging from the wagon stiffened his resolve. No wizard, rancher or not, was going to show more courage than he did. He clamped his lips shut and waited for Sodan's answer.
The old man's gaze flickered back and forth between them thoughtfully. Abruptly he came to a decision. “Storm leads,” he said, looking around at the men. They all nodded silently.
Wondering if he'd made the right decision or not, Storm rose to his feet. “In that case we're wasting time. We break camp and ride at once. Durin will assign flankers. Thomas will ride point.”
The men scrambled to obey. After a cold breakfast they were soon on their way. Sodan volunteered to drive the wagon so Ralt lazed back beside him, studying an arcane book or simply eyeballing the scenery as the mood took him.
There was much to be seen. The Plains of Aroon were a hundred leagues wide at their narrowest point, nearly five hundred at their widest. North and south they ran for nearly twelve hundred. Every conceivable variety of animal and plant life thronged the prairie. Vast herds moved slowly about, cropping the verdant grasses and shrubs. Late blooming flowers scented the air. Over the creaking of the wagon wheels they could hear the lazy hum of insects and chirping birds.
Morning slowly gave way to midday and Sodan finally retired from the heat, giving the reins over to Ralt.
Cutting through the trail dust Durin moved over to ride by Storm. “You speak in military terms and we ride war fashion,” he said bluntly.
Storm glanced at him. “You object?”
“No. But I wonder at your reasons. Are you expecting trouble so soon?”
“I always expect trouble. That way I'm never disappointed.”
Durin nodded then moved away with a quiet smile.
The hills behind them sank slowly out of view until they disappeared in the tall grass. It was as though they rode through an ocean made of brown instead of blue. Their days quickly settled into a routine. Thomas would scout ahead with his heavy bow to provide them with an abundance of fresh meat as the days blended into one another. One was much like the last. Ride from dawn 'till dusk, pitch camp, eat, set the watches and sleep, then do it all over again the next day. Each morning the sky was clear and cloudless, only a haze of dust hung in the still air. The herds of buffalo grew in size until they blackened the land for leagues in every directions. Once they saw a long fanged prairie cat, distant cousin to the smaller mountain lions the men were familiar with. The nights grew progressively cooler, heralding an early winter. More than one man predicted there would be snow in the passes of the Ridge Mountains before they reached Robling.
Their journey was so dull and boring Storm was surprised one night to find himself springing out of his blankets from a dead sleep, sword in hand. He checked himself abruptly, searching the camp for whatever had woken him. A quick glance confirmed all was well, so why were his nerves taut with a sense of impending danger? He stepped away from his blankets, listening closely. For as long as he could remember he'd been able to feel danger approaching while other men laughed uncaringly, secure in their false safety. That strange sense had never let him down; he didn't believe it would now either.
The night was still.
The usual chirping of insects and croaking of frogs was absent. Alarmed, he spun around searching the horizon for the danger he was now certain was approaching. Then he saw it. A dark blot obscured the stars to the south. Flashes of light flickered fitfully beneath it.
Ogden, the heavy-set guard on duty, moved to join him. “It's only a storm, Captain. Been going for about an hour now.”
“A lightening storm,” Storm corrected him. “A lightening storm over a plain of grass, dry from the summer's heat, ready to burn.”
“You fear a prairie fire?” rumbled a voice behind him.
He turned to find Durin and Thomas approaching. “Not the fire so much as the herds fleeing it. Even a well-made palisade is not always proof against their panic. And we don't even have that much shelter.”
“Captain is right,” the usually jocular Thomas added seriously, his accent suddenly missing. “I was raised on these plains. The only way to survive a stampede is to get out of its way – if you can.”
The dwarf shook his head. “You don't even know that the storm has started a fire, let alone a stampede.”
“Wrong,” Storm and Thomas said in unison.
Thomas continued, “A storm that size” – he gestured at the almost continuous flashes of lightening – “is guaranteed to start a fire, which in turn will start a stampede. Count on it.”
“Yes,” Storm agreed. “But in which direction?”
“No way to tell Captain, but I'd feel a lot better if we were moving. If it comes our way we won't have much time to get out its path.”
“You're right. Durin, get the men up and mounted. We ride at once.”
The dwarf shrugged but turned to his task without comment. His voice was a smaller echo of the distant thunder as he readied the men. For all that they were city folk, they were well trained Storm admitted to himself. After the first few grumbles they responded with quick discipline. Even Ralt lent a hand saddling the horses. Soon they were moving through the darkness, the dying campfire a lonely beacon in the night.
Fearful of unseen holes or sudden drops in the dark, they rode cautiously. Still more fearful of a stampede, Storm urged them to greater speed, ignoring their protests. Long minutes dragged past until a sudden shout from Thomas brought them to a halt.
To the south, on their left, an orange glow lit up the clouds from beneath. It grew quickly as they watched. Thomas slid off his horse and stretched his length in the grass, one ear pressed to the ground. He rose a moment later, his face grim.
“It comes,” he said tersely as he swung back into his saddle.
“How far?” Storm asked him.
“Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. We're directly in its path, and it's wide – very wide.”
Storm cursed. If Thomas was right the stampede was practically on top of them already. “Alright then; ride for your lives! All of you! Ride!”
The men needed no urging. One glance at the growing fire coupled with the memory of the teeming herds filling the plains told them they stood at death's door. Speed was their only hope before it slammed shut on them. They kicked their horses into a gallop.
Storm knew he would always remember that frantic ride through the inky darkness as a nightmare. They whipped through the tall grass at speeds that were foolhardy even in the full light of day. The darkness turned it into a suicidal rush through the night that could end in an instant of shattered flesh and bone at the slightest misstep. The wagon bounced and shimmied like a living thing as Ralt fought the reins, all the while urging the horses to greater and greater speed. The wind of their passage brought tears to their eyes and blurred their vision until they were truly blind, but they only spurred their horses harder. And prayed.
Their prayers went unheard.
With a sudden whinny of pain, the horse in front of Storm went down with a sickening crunch of bones. Specter swerved to the right, almost spilling him out of the saddle. His stride faltered for a moment, then strengthened again. One of the men, anonymous in the dark, started to rein in his horse.
“No!” Storm thundered. “Leave him! He's already dead!”
The guard grimaced, then spurred his mount. Storm lashed Specter, wondering if his words were true. It didn't matter he thought angrily; if they stopped they'd all be killed. He offered up a wordless prayer for the fallen guard then bent even lower over Specter's neck.
The flashes of lightening were closer now, electric blue flashes that outlined them eerily in the night. The growing fire to the south cast flickering shadows across the land. Like some hideous army from Hell they appeared, the wind whipping their cloaks behind them. In the distance, the dim roar of the stampede began to make itself heard – a sound out of time – further heightening the unreality of the scene.
They hurtled through the night in a bone shaking race with death. The noise grew until their savage shouts at the horses were drowned by the thundering hooves of countless, fear maddened buffalo.
Storm risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the vast herd, almost upon them. Then in the still growing light from the fire he saw open prairie. Bellowing over the earthshaking noise he hauled savagely on Specter's reins, hoping the rest of them heard him.
Pounding hard on his heels they raced for safety beyond the edge of the stampede. Every second brought them closer to open ground, every second brought the stampede closer to killing them. Storm could make out individual animals now. He fought against the urge to close his eyes. This is gonna be close!
Then . . .
. . . the stampede was behind them, racing away, north, into the night.
“Whoo!” he shouted, pumping his fist exultantly. “We made it!”
The men took up his shout, yelling in relief at their brush with death. They quickly slowed the horses to a trot, not wishing to tempt fate any more this night. They kept riding for another ten minutes before Storm felt they were far enough west from the mighty stampede to risk stopping. Finally he called a halt and ordered the men to sound off.
Thomas was sagging in his saddle in relief. “Who did we lose?” Storm queried him.
Storm shook his head. “I can't place him.” Odd colors floated at the edge of his vision. He blinked to clear his eyes.
“The right flanker, Cap'em. Scar on his cheek.” With the danger passed, his hick accent suddenly reappeared.
Oh yes. Now he remembered. Noisy, talkative sort of fellow. Well, he was a lot quieter now. “Assign Ogden to his position. How is the wagon?”
“Boldric and Durin are looking it over. We'll know in a few minutes.”
Storm dismounted, patting Specter's sweaty flank. He grinned at Ralt who was slumped back in his seat, “Quite a ride, eh wizard?”
“One I'd just as soon not repeat if it's OK with you,” he replied wearily.
Storm laughed. A close call with death always left him feeling invigorated, more alive than ever. He spotted Boldric climbing out from under the wagon. “How's it look?”
The burly guard shrugged, brushing himself off. “Looks alright to me but Durin's eyes are better in the dark than mine. Let's wait and see what he says.”
Storm felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to find Ralt behind him. “What?”
“The wagon may be alright, but Sodan isn't. That was a pretty rough ride for a man his age. He looks like death warmed over.”
“Blast it!” Storm muttered. “I was afraid something like this would happen. He's too old for this kind of thing. He should have stayed home.”
The wizard nodded agreement. “Still, it's his party and we're getting paid to bring him along.”
Storm heaved a sigh, “Alright. See what you can do for him.”
Ralt angrily opened his mouth to reply but Storm cut him off, “Never mind. Just do what you can.”
The corners of Ralt's mouth pulled down, “Right. I'll explain things later.”
“You do that.” Storm knelt to stick his head under the wagon, dismissing the wizard from his mind. The colors at the edge of his vision seemed to be getting worse. He squeezed his eyes again and shook his head slightly to clear it. “Durin. What's it look like to those dwarven eyes of yours?”
“Not bad,” the dwarf replied. “Not bad at all. Much better than I hoped actually. Whoever built this wagon knew what they were doing.” He pointed at a shapeless mass. “See those joints? Tempered steel instead of iron. And it's got those new, double springs that wagon builders have been experimenting with of late.”
Storm shook his head, marveling at Durin's vision. He couldn't see anything, “If you say so.” He stood up, casting a glance at the fire still burning to the south. If the wind pushed it their way it was good to know the wagon was serviceable. He left Durin to his inspection and started to join the men in rubbing down the horses. Their flanks were heaving and covered with froth.
A sudden wave of dizziness washed over him. The colors flickering around him closed in like a shroud. For an instant he could almost see a strange pattern hanging in the air, marking their trail behind them. He shook his head and nearly fell, lurching to keep his balance. The dizziness faded somewhat but refused to go away, nor did the flickering colors leave either.
Setting his jaw he walked carefully to Specter and began rubbing him down. What in blazes was going on here? Had he taken ill with some strange disease?
Thomas, working on one of the horses, edged toward him. “Ralt wants to talk to ya, Cap'em,” he said in low tones. “Go on, I'll take care of yer horse.” His eyes flickered toward the wagon, expression grim.
Storm's heart sank, but he kept his face impassive. “Stinking wizards aren't good for anything but talking,” he growled for the benefit of the men. Low chuckles greeted this remark as he strode to the wagon.
He reached it just as Ralt emerged, pulling the flaps tight behind him. He gestured Storm toward a small pile of rocks away from the men. Durin trailed along behind him, eyes downcast in sorrow. Reaching it Ralt sat down wearily. “He's got chest pains,” he said without preamble. “Bad chest pains. If we move him tonight he'll die.”
Storm nodded at the distant fire. “If that comes our way we may not much choice.”
“I know, I know. I'm just telling you that if we do, Sodan won't live to see dawn.”
Storm cursed under his breath. He felt helpless in situations like this, a feeling he never enjoyed. Grimly he considered their circumstances. If the old man hadn't insisted on coming with his granddaughter's body they wouldn't be in this fi . . . Wait a minute! He turned eagerly back to the wizard. “Why not do to Sodan what you did to Krista? Then it won't matter how much we move him.”
Ralt shook his head. “It's a good idea, but the spell is beyond me. Gerald cast it on Krista, not me.”
Storm's heart dropped again. Great. If they moved the old man he'd die. If they stayed put they'd all roast. All they could really do was hope the fire went in some other direction. He glowered at the sorcerer. “A fat lot of good you are. You can't heal him. You can't put him in a jar or whatever. You can't ride or fight. What in blazes are you here for anyway?”
“I told you, a demon might try to--”
“Drag her soul down to Hell,” Storm finished for him. “Yeah, yeah, I know. But she was in Koontanrinobel for months and nothing happened. We've been on the trail for nearly two weeks now and nothing’s happened. Nothing!”
The corners of Ralt's mouth quirked upwards in amusement. “When Krista's body, and more importantly, the box with her soul in it are stationary, there's no danger at all. When she's being moved around though, it creates, I don't know, 'ripples'. Imagine a boat sitting quietly at dock, then imagine that same boat moving across a still lake. Any underwater monsters will notice the ripples, which will lead them to the boat. The same idea holds true with Krista. The longer and further we move her, the greater the chances of trouble.”
Storm considered this news thoughtfully, laying aside the matter of Sodan for the moment. “Then we can expect trouble toward the end of our journey rather than at the beginning?”
“Exactly,” Ralt nodded, pleased at Storm's understanding. “And just like that boat I mentioned, the faster we move her, the more pronounced the ripples become. Back along our trail the colors are pretty vivid right now.”
“Colors?” Storm's hand shot out and jerked the wizard to his feet. “What colors? What are you talking about?”
Surprised, Ralt could only splutter, “Back along our trail; colors, patterns of magic. What's the matter with you? Let me go!” He pawed ineffectually at Storm's fist. “Durin! Get him off me!” The dwarf only stared at him quizzically.
Storm tightened his grip, glaring down at the wizard. “Patterns? How do you know about them?” he gritted.
Ralt's eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “You see them too!” he exclaimed in wonder. “Lord of Light! You’re a Ghibbore!” He pronounced it ghi-bōre'.
Storm's eyes narrowed dangerously. “What? Talk sense, wizard!” The village shaman had once mentioned the Ghibbore were some kind of ancient heroes, but that was all he knew.
Ralt refused to surrender his dignity by fighting Storm’s grasp any further. He dropped his hands and stared back defiantly. “I am talking sense. Only two kinds of people can see the weave of magic; those who’ve had the attunement spell cast on them, like tuning a musical instrument to play the right notes, or a Ghibbore – its from the Old Tongue and means mighty man. It always refers to someone who was was chosen by the gods to be born able to see the weave of magic. I doubt you’d let anyone cast a spell on you . . .”
“You bet I wouldn’t!” Storm snarled.
“. . . so you have to be a Ghibbore,” Ralt continued as though he hadn’t been interrupted. “That means you must have just turned twenty four.”
Storm's knuckles were turning white with the effort of not lashing out. “Twenty five,” He corrected absently before he caught himself and remembered. He pushed Ralt away with an angry shove. Theoretically he was twenty-five but he’d only been on Gaia twenty four years.
Ralt stumbled and caught himself. Straightening up he saw the confusion written on Storm's features. “What?” he asked questioningly.
His mind whirled, thoughts surfacing he hadn’t had to face in years. Twenty five? Technically he was a hundred and two, over half as old as Sodan, but how could he explain that to anyone?
The dwarf roused himself from his grief over Sodan as Storm’s silence lengthened. “Lad, whot’s got ye in such a lather?” He and Ralt exchanged a bewildered look.
Storm dropped heavily to the rock pile as his knees gave out. The only way to answer the wizard was to tell him what he'd never told anyone. Colors were still flickering wildly back along their trail. This is crazy, he thought. But if Ralt could believe it, and he obviously did, maybe he’d believe Storm’s tale. Who knows, even Durin might believe it.
“Hey.” Ralt laid a hand on his shoulder. “What’s going on? Is being a Ghibbore too much for that barbarian soul of yours?”
Storm shot him an irritated look. “Give the barbarian thing a rest; I was adopted.”
Both the men were surprised. “Ye never mentioned it before,” Durin rumbled.
“Ralt never told me I was a Ghibbore before.”
Now they were completely lost. Ralt shook his head in bafflement. “What have they got to do with one another, aside from your age?”
“Because I’m a hundred and two, older than the two of you put together!” his voice cracked like a whip. He winced, hoping his words hadn’t carried to the men lingering around the wagon. It was bad enough he had to tell Ralt and Durin. With them at least there was an outside possibility they might believe him; with the rest of the men there was no possibility.
Ralt’s face went carefully blank; it was the kind of look people got when they were trying not to antagonize a madman. “Is that a fact? Odd you don’t look it.”
Durin wasn’t nearly as tactful. “Have ye lost yer mind? Perhaps ye have the manner and bearing of man forty years older but yer still younger than Ralt here and don’t ye try to deny it,” he snorted, fists on his hips. Ralt tried to silence him but the dwarf was having none of it. “It’s the middle of the night, Sodan is ill, the men need leading, and here ye sit prattling on about yer age!”
Storm fought an internal battle with himself then gave it up. He’d already said too much, there was no point in trying to back out now. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ he realized, an old saying he hadn’t thought of in years. “I wasn’t born on this world, on Gaia,” he muttered finally. “I came here from another world, where I was already an old man, but when I woke up here, I was in the body I had when I was a year old, just a baby. That’s when the Bear Clan found me, in the middle of a storm – twenty four years ago on Mid-Summer's Eve.”
Dead silence greeted him. Past Ralt and Durin’s startled faces the men continued to wipe down their horses, a low murmur of conversation just barely reaching his ears. Off on the horizon the fire seemed to be dying down.
“Maybe you should start at the beginning,” Ralt said carefully.
Storm nodded. Even if they didn’t believe him, he’d still wanted to tell this story for so long it was about to explode out of him. “I was born in a place called Dallas, Texas . . .”