Chronicles of Arborell, Copyright Wayne Densley 2008 All Rights Reserved
Through fog and misting rain the three men trudged forward, their shadowed forms drawn in vague patches as they struggled through the heavy mists. About them the world was a pale wash of grey, only the ground at their feet visible as they moved northwards. Hard had been the days since they had left the Eagle's Reach, and there could be no disguising the scepticism with which one of their number viewed their current circumstances.
"How in the Name of Providence do we actually know where we are going? I swear I cannot see beyond my outstretched arm, yet there seems no limit to this fog, or this barren ground. Are you sure Mallen, that we are not walking in circles?"
Mallen looked at his brother with no small amount of annoyance. "Tomas, you have asked me the same question every ten minutes for the last two days and I must answer you the same as before. In this matter it is to Gremorgan that we must look for guidance. This land is known to him, and it is with him that we must place our trust."
Tomas was not convinced for he had no idea where they were. He wished only to find a trail, or some clue left by the Hresh that would confirm they were going the right way. It had been many hours since they had seen any hint of the Hordim, and Sil's markers had dried up just as completely. His only guide to their path was an assurance from Gremorgan that they should follow their current heading. He was not convinced.
Four long days had passed since they had turned their backs on the Eagle's Reach, and in the morning of the third day the world had closed in, covering itself in a thick fog that clung to their clothing like damp fingers. They had travelled a great distance into the north but the malevolence of the Dreyadim lingered like an immovable landmark. Beyond the range of his shrouded vision Mallen could feel the presence of the Keln'Kraag at their right shoulders, and the brooding malice of the Dreyadim receding at their backs. In a way the swarming spectres of the Eagle's Reach had become a stable point within the mists that now surrounded them, one which gave the Kalborean a clear idea of the course they were taking. No matter which way Gremorgan turned, the creeping chill of the Dreyadim could be felt, a palpable outreach of hatred that anchored his sense of direction, and allowed him to know exactly where they were going.
Tomas did not have the same feeling, for Mallen had chosen not to tell his brother of the existence of the swarm. For Tomas Cael the uneasiness of the preceding days had passed and he thought no more of it. Mallen however, had looked directly at the Dreyadim through Gremorgan's nightglasses and had felt them look back. It was a connection that had proven difficult to break.
Mallen knew however, that it was not the Dreyadim that Gremorgan was using to navigate the mists. Every so often the Dwarvendim would pull his Dirge-compass from his travel coat and study it, searching the range of its view for sign of the Hordim and of the Faeyen girl, Sil. In this manner the three companions had kept a steady path into the north, edging the foothills of the Keln'Kraag as they continued their pursuit of the warband.
But it had been hard, a grinding run that had been sustained only through the consumption of the Nahla Cake of the Jotun. Without it they would have been left far behind the Hresh, unable to make ground, and with no chance of rescuing Shemwe. At this point in their journey it was all that mattered. Mallen could understand Tomas' impatience.
Within the cool embrace of the mists Mallen remained close to the LoreMaster, Tomas keeping a station only a few paces to the rear. The ground had remained constant since leaving the Reach; a wide plain of desiccated, thinly grassed earth, covered in a sparse aggregation of acacia trees and wiry bushes. Through this desolate region the three had run, moving under suns and stars as they pursued their goal. The tracks of the Hresh had proven elusive, but every so often a simple arrow scratched into the hard earth by Sil had given them hope that they were still within reach of the warband. Then the fog had descended and the trail-marks left by the Faeyen had disappeared. At least for now they appeared to be on their own.
For his part Gremorgan showed no sign of unease. With the Dirge-compass in hand he could see the faint trails left by the Hordim, thin lines of blue across its face that showed him where they were going. Across the disc he could see a multitude of traces, the Hordim as deep blue against the metallic surface of its face, intermingled with the lighter and almost indistinguishable tracery of many other creatures that had also passed this way over the centuries. With few exceptions all moved towards a gap between the mountains ahead. It would be there that they would have the best chance of once again picking up the trail of the Hresh.
Carefully Gremorgan peered into the white wall of mist and knew what lay ahead. It was an advantage the Hresh did not have, and it was his hope that the fog had brought the warband to a halt. If that was the case then there was still a chance that they might find the Hordim before they reached the mountains.
Using the device to track the Hordim had been a decision forced on him by necessity. Previously he had been reticent to use the Dirge-compass, for there was a possibility that its reach might be noticed by the warband, and in doing so bring them to the attention of their leader. But with all pretence of stealth abandoned; the Hordim making their retreat at great speed to the north, there seemed little to be lost. The Dirge-compass was not something though, that could be relied upon. Its great power had proven many times to also be its weakness. Sometimes it could sense far too much, and in the process tell the user nothing.
In the growing twilight of day's end Gremorgan brought his colleagues to a halt and pointed to a nearby acacia.
"We have travelled far today. A few hours rest will do us all some good I think."
Both Mallen and Tomas nodded, their weariness leaving no reason for argument lingering in the damp air. Quickly Mallen began a small fire as his brother cleared the area beneath the acacia to lay bedding. Gremorgan nudged the packs from his back, and in the gathering dark apportioned a small piece of the Nahla Cake to each of the Kalboreans. Sitting about the fire there was little conversation between the men. Even the Nahla could not mask the fatigue that quickly took each of them into sleep.
In the cool hours before dawn a noise brought Mallen back to wakefulness. Lying covered beneath his blankets he stared out into the fog, not sure that he had indeed heard anything, but there was a feeling in the air, and it grew stronger as he waited. Not moving he lay as if in sleep, his eyes searching the darkness. His patience was soon rewarded.
Out of the mists there came the unmistakable form of a young girl. Immediately Mallen recognised her as Sil, but her approach was not one of happy reunion. In her hand she held a long dagger, and within the vapoured shadows was moving silently towards Gremorgan. Carefully the Kalborean moved his hand to grasp the hilt of his sword, ready to defend his friend if the need arise, but as he watched the Faeyen turned instead to the Dwarvendim's bags and quietly opened one of them. Without a sound she cut open one of the Nahla cakes and took a small piece, eating it slowly before turning towards Mallen himself. Before he could call to her she was gone, disappearing like a phantom into the fog.
Quickly he raised himself and called to the Dwarvendim in a hollow whisper. Gremorgan was also awake.
"Did you see her?" Mallen asked.
"Yes," replied the LoreMaster, "I was watching."
"Why didn't you grab her, find out what she's doing?"
Gremorgan raised himself and looked stolidly at Mallen. "You have seen what the girl can do Mallen. Do you think she would allow herself to be restrained? It is better that she be out there hunting the Hresh, than be here with us. On this you must trust me, for she is not what she appears to be. Anyway," he smiled, "a small amount of Nahla cake seems a fair price for the help she has been giving, don't you think?"
Mallen looked at Gremorgan and shrugged. He had seen what the Faeyen could do, and had to admit he would rather not have it visited upon himself. From the perspective given by the LoreMaster the loss of a piece of Nahla cake seemed fair enough, but he did not like the idea of anyone stealing through their camp with a drawn dagger in hand.
"Should we set a watch?" he asked.
Gremorgan nodded. "I will watch out the remainder of the night. There are only a few hours of dark left but it is prudent that someone keep alert. Sleep Master Cael. I will wake you at sunsrise."
With the LoreMaster watching the camp Mallen turned on his side, but for a short while he could not find rest, instead peering out into the fogs, looking for some further sign of the Faeyen girl. It was a vigil that ended quickly when the exhaustion of his travels drew him back into sleep.
Gremorgan made himself comfortable and waited for the dawn. For a long time he lay on his back, watching as the stars turned on their axis, following the ancient paths that were only theirs to traverse. He had said nothing, but he had seen the creature known as Sil steal into their encampment before, only on this occasion the girl had dared to come close enough to take food from his satchels. It was a worry for him, but one he did not believe he would share with the others. Sil could not come close without him sensing her, and the hard truth was that only he could do anything to stop her. There was little point worrying the others on this account. If she ever became a threat he would have no choice but to kill her, and in doing so her true nature would be revealed. For the moment however, it was a secret he preferred to keep to himself.
Just before the dawn, as the moons of Arborell dipped beneath the far western horizon, Gremorgan felt another presence moving upon the edges of the mists. He could not be sure if he was asleep or awake, perhaps tilting between the dark and the light of consciousness, when a voice came into his mind, as clear and as solid as flowing water.
"Gremorgan." it whispered.
For a moment the Dwarvendim could not respond. He was paralysed by a force he had never felt before, one as powerful as the River of Life itself.
"Do not struggle against me, Gremorgan Hedj, for I am not here to harm you."
Gremorgan could not move but he could feel everything. About him the cold mists of the plain clouded further, reality dissolving away until all he could sense was himself, suspended in space, surrounded by the glimmering light of another Being. In the solitary place that he now found himself he knew what it was. It was a Caer'dahl, a servant of the Silvan Tree, and in its presence he could barely find his voice.
"Who are you spirit, and what is your purpose here?"
The light flickered about him, but only momentarily.
"My name is Ulaal'serai, Caer'dahl to the Silvan Tree, Guardian of all quiet waters, and here in your presence as Messenger from the Powers of the World. I come with greetings and a new task for you, LoreMaster."
"You have been on a quest Gremorgan, one well known to the Three Powers. For more than the breadth of a generation you have been in search of the Word of Dissolution. I know that it was given to you by the Hra'gora, but that was only to keep you on your current path. I am here to tell you that the tribulations of your search are now ended, a new task yours to be fulfilled. Trust in the Silvan Tree, Gremorgan Hedj, for I tell you that although you have the Word in your possession, the place you seek, the sacred chamber from whence you can send all Oera'dim into dissolution, has been barred from you. In this matter, the mission entrusted to you by your King is over."
"Over!" protested Gremorgan. "By what right can you annul the commission of my King? Do you understand that I am bound by oath and fealty to that mission? It is not something easily foregone."
The Caer'dahl flared in response. "Is it you who has forgotten the terms of the Doctrine of Araheal? Think on it LoreMaster, for there are Powers greater than your King, and their claims supersede all others."
Within the encompassing light of the Caer'dahl Gremorgan could not move, but he felt keenly the truth of the spirit's words. He knew well the Doctrine, the rules agreed upon by the Dwarvendim LoreMasters when the Shan'duil gave them access to the powers of EarthMagic. In his lifetime no LoreMaster had ever been called into the service of the River of Life, but in such circumstances his duty was clear. It was a request that could not be refused, for it was the Doctrine that bound the powers of EarthMagic to the LoreMasters and it could be recanted if the oaths were broken. He had no choice and the Caer'dahl knew it. He would honour his oath to the Shan'duil.
For a moment the Caer'dahl waited on Gremorgan's decision then continued.
"There is much you do not know, LoreMaster. Although Men are newcomers in this world, their fate has been interwoven with that of their enemies, and it is a connection that cannot be easily broken. The Oera'dim were created against the will of the Silvan Tree, and Men came into the world without knowledge of the Powers that maintain its balance. Against all the possibilities that could have transpired a balance has been achieved, and it will not be suffered to be undone yet again. The River of Life will not allow it."
Against the backdrop of the ethereal mist Gremorgan found himself looking into a flowing stream of water, from which visions of the outside world coalesced into sharp imagery. To his surprise he found himself staring down upon a wide grassed plain, a valley caught between mountains, and cut through its centre by a wide, rapid river. The Dwarvendim recognised it immediately as the Shan Valley, an open grassland settled at the base of the Rift Mountains to the north-east of their encampment. As he watched the ground rushed up towards him, focusing on a group of figures running towards a wide ford in the river. Gremorgan's breathing faltered when he realised it was the Hresh Warband.
Numbering no more than twenty, they ran as if something deadly was stalking them, and only flight could save them from its grasp. In a single file they moved across the grasses, making for a natural courseway that spanned the river ahead. From their colours he could see they were the Denmar, and in two litters they carried the bodies of two red-haired women. Both were still alive, but haggard and worn from their ordeal. He had no doubt that one of them would be Shemwe.
At the head of the warband ran Ansolon'Denmar, and he was everything the Dwarvendim feared. Grim and determined, the powerful Hresh seemed untouched by the rigours of their long journey, urging his soldiers to greater effort as he led them into the east. The LoreMaster could see in his visage the surety of a Being without any doubt of the success of his mission. As a unit the Hresh ran, Ansolon looking to the sky, almost as if he could sense someone was watching.
The vision grew all the more detailed as it focused on the face of the Hresh Chieftain and then froze as a single moment in time. It was then that the Caer'dahl continued.
"This Hresh has been the object of your pursuit for these many days, but he does not hold the knowledge you seek. No Oera'dim knows the location of the Hall of Creation, and none can enter even if they were privy to such knowledge. To do so would strip the spark of life from them, sending them into the Dissolution that none seek willingly. Ansolon'Denmar cannot help you, but you must find him nonetheless."
For a moment the spirit paused, as if collecting itself for a task that required great focus.
"I come to you with a new mission, one that you cannot refuse. According to the Doctrine of Araheal your first loyalty must be to the River of Life, and only after the Shan'duil can you look to the Lords of Men for your duty. In this matter the River of Life claims the right to your obedience."
"The Silvan Tree absolves you of all fealty to your King, Gremorgan Hedj, your place as a LoreMaster of the Grand Circle vacated. You will keep the skills and knowledge of your Order, but from this time forth you are a servant of the Tree alone; commissioned to a new task, one that will save both Oera'dim and Men from certain destruction. From this time forward you can no longer look to the Word of Dissolution as the means for Men to overcome their enemies. Such a path is no longer open to you. Instead you must find the leader of the Hresh Warband and convince him to take you to the Horns of Gorgoroth. There within the birthing grounds of the Oera'dim you shall find the task that must now consume you. Only there can the destiny of Men and Oera'dim alike be assured."
"The world is changing Gremorgan, and you are to be the axis upon which it turns. There is danger growing in the East of this world, testing the barriers that have stood for millennia to keep it out. If Men choose to act alone they will be consumed by it. If the Oera'dim think that they can withstand the onslaught then they will falter also, and in good time all will perish."
"But what is the nature of the task you set before me?" asked the LoreMaster. "And what of the Caels? I cannot leave them to an uncertain fate."
"The duty you now have is to the Silvan Tree. Find a path to the Horns of Gorgoroth and your task will make itself known. It is better that you do not know what you must do until you get there. Only when you have found sanctuary within the Horns will you be safe."
"On the matter of the Brothers Cael do not be concerned. They will stay with you until you have found Ansolon'Denmar, and once they have retrieved their fellow country-women they will be able to find their own way home. Fate tells us that it is not in these lands that the Caels shall find an unwelcome end. Their destinies lay elsewhere."
Through the glimmering mists Gremorgan could see the first light of the suns rising against the silhouettes of the Keln'Kraag. He could sense that the spirit was about to leave, but he had one more question.
"And what of the girl known as Sil? You know what she is as well as I. Does she play any part in this?"
At the mention of the girl's name the Caer'dahl faltered, withdrawing from the word as if the echo of it caused pain.
"The Faeyen is the pawn of others who have no part in what is to come. I have told you that the Word of Dissolution is barred from you, but there will come a time when its utterance will be your only recourse. When that time comes you will recognise it. It will be best that you do not hesitate."
"It is now time that I go, Gremorgan Hedj. With the coming of the dawn the mists that have covered these lands will recede, just as I must. The Hresh are making for Durgoz Hold and that must be your goal as well. Within its dark places you will find a path to the Lands of Perdition."
Before Gremorgan could say anything more the Caer'dahl faded away, disappearing in a gusting breeze like smoke borne away upon the wind. In the twilight of morning it was gone, leaving the LoreMaster lying on his blankets, limbs stiff from the cold of the night. Carefully he sat up and looked about him. Both of the Caels were still asleep, the world around them waking to a fresh day of clear sky and open ground. For a short time he did not move, content to watch the sunsrise and think on what had gone before. For the Dwarvendim life had changed forever.
Mallen awoke to find the second sun of morning emerging from behind the jagged lines of the Keln'Kraag mountains. In the bright morning light the sky was a wash of orange and purple, a clear vault untouched by cloud or mist. Feeling the chill air he pulled his travel cloak about him, and searched the surrounding plain for any sign of the Faeyen. It took a moment, but when he came more fully awake he realised that the mists had disappeared, and in the full light of the day was surprised to find how far they had come.
About their small encampment the plains spread for a great distance to the south and west. In the far south, the spire of the Eagle's Reach stood as a vague point against the horizon. In the west the grasslands reached as far as the eye could see, a vast open land of cold, dry grasses and ragged stands of trees. It was in the north and east that Mallen found his attention drawn however, for against the deep blue of the sky, and the pastel colours of the dawn, there arose mountains so huge they seemed to hold the sky itself aloft.
"It is a sight almost worth the effort of getting here isn't it?" came a voice close at hand.
It was Gremorgan, squatting beside a small fire, his head bowed, attention narrowed on a small cooking pot.
"Where are we?" asked Mallen, as he pulled himself out of his blankets.
The Dwarvendim stood and scratched at his face, then pointed into the north. "What we have here is the Great Rift Mountains. I doubt there is a man alive who actually knows how high they are, but they stand as the northern reach of the lands of Men, and a solid boundary they are. There are few who have attempted to conquer them, and less who have come back alive to tell the tale. We can see nothing of it, but beyond them lay the Lands of Perdition, homeland of the Horde and a place where only fools, and possibly ourselves, would wish to tread."
Mallen stood for a time and took in the sight of the enormous mountain range. At their base he could see the misted outline of a line of foothills, that rose from the dry expanse of the plain in ever increasing levels to a series of lesser mountains, grey and black against the sky. Dwarfing all these however, was the Massif itself, a solid wall of snow-encrusted peaks that rose as broken teeth, sharp and unforgiving into the clouds that streamed past them, tearing their vapours into long ribbons that dissolved quickly in the thin air.
It was obvious that they had no path northwards, but in the east the ground was very different. At some time in the preceding evening they had passed beyond the northern reach of the Keln'Kraag, and had made camp upon the outer edges of what could only be described as a pass, spreading as an area of flat ground between those mountains, and a further range of impressive hills that extended to the foothills of the Rift in the north. From their vantage Mallen could see the Keln'Kraag coming to an abrupt end; the pass a long, wide reach of verdant grasses that cut between the mountains, extending eastwards into shadow. Mallen turned to Gremorgan but the LoreMaster spoke first.
"What you see is the Pass of Adamant. An ancient route for armies wishing to find a path from the Shan Valleys in the east to the wider plains of the west. It is no exaggeration to say that more battles have been fought here than anywhere else in Arborell, except perhaps for the Pass at Maenum. It is our fate that we too will have to take this route, for all indications say that the Hordim have passed this way. Somewhere beyond Adamant, within the valleys of the fertile Shan the Hresh are moving quickly. It is there that we will find them."
Mallen noticed how confidently the LoreMaster spoke. There was a surety in his words that he had not heard previously. The Kalborean could sense that something had changed but he knew Gremorgan would tell him in his own good time. In the gathering light he turned back to the mountains and watched as the shadows of the Great Rift were pushed back by the rising suns.
It was a vista unlike anything he had seen, and he could not help but stand and take it in. As he did so Tomas came and stood at his side.
"I believe we had a visitor in the night." he said quietly.
Mallen nodded to his brother, then turned and looked towards Gremorgan. "Did Sil return at all?" he asked.
The Dwarvendim shook his head then came and stood with his companions.
"The girl did not return, but I know now where we must go, and as soon as we have had some breakfast we will get on our way."
Both of the brothers looked at each other and then followed the LoreMaster to the fire. From the cooking pot came the smell of boiled meat and vegetables. After the Nahla Bread of the past days it was a welcome aroma indeed.
"Where did you get the food Gremorgan?" asked Mallen.
The Dwarvendim smiled and stirred the pot. "Whilst you two were sleeping I was watching for Sil and happened to notice a Squoll burrow in the stand of trees ahead. It was a small matter to wait for one of the fat rodents to put its head out of the nest. The want of a decent meal can make one very patient indeed, and not too picky for that matter either. The vegetables are just bush-potatoes I found within the trees. A small amount of Nahla Bread for spice and here we have it, a hot breakfast."
Both Kalboreans ran quickly for their plates, and soon all three men were enjoying a breakfast that couldn't have tasted better, even if it was Squoll meat and withered potatoes. When they had finished Gremorgan cleaned and packed away his gear as the two brothers organised their blankets and clothing for the day. Even in the bright light of the suns it was still going to be cold, and as they prepared the Dwarvendim came to them.
"I must tell you Mallen and Tomas that we had more than one visitor in the night." He paused as the brothers put down what they were doing.
"Although it will mean little to you Tomas, it would be remiss of me not to tell you both that in the early hours a Caer'dahl came into my dreams, and in that encounter has given me information vital to our quest."
Tomas looked to Mallen and then back at the Dwarvendim. "A Caer'dahl? What is that exactly?"
Gremorgan looked at Mallen and nodded his head. It was time to tell the younger Cael who the Dwarvendim really was.
It was Mallen who spoke first. "Tomas. There is something I have been keeping from you, but only because it was important to keep such knowledge from Sil. A Caer'dahl is a spirit, part of a world that we have had little to do with, and which has passed before us without our realisation. I have come to know much about this hidden world, but only because of my friendship with Gremorgan. He is a trusted friend, and our companion on this journey; but he is also a LoreMaster, one of the Grand Circle, and privy to power unlike anything I have ever seen. He is much more than he seems."
For a moment Tomas stood blankly, his simple question the cause of a sudden revelation. But it was not a surprise to him. Unexpectedly he smiled and slapped Mallen on the back.
"By the Fates Mallen, I was wondering how long it would take before you told me. Last few days I've been holding my tongue, not sure why it should be such a secret. Had my suspicions you know. Couldn't work out why a Dwarvendim of Gremorgan's size would be tagging along with a sorry pair like ourselves. A LoreMaster eh? All I can say is I'm glad you're on our side."
With that he strode over to Gremorgan and extended his hand. "Tomas Cael of Callenfrey at your service, Maturi."
Mallen laughed, but not with relief at Tomas' easy acceptance of their need for secrecy. It was the look on Gremorgan's face.
"How is it you know the title of my Order young Cael? I did not think such things would be known in the wider world."
Tomas smiled wryly and turned to look towards the Pass of Adamant. "You'd be surprised what a person learns on the road. Although I never told Mallen, I once met another LoreMaster, a man known as the Maturi Len, whilst hunting in the forests outside Kal Orban."
"You never told me." protested Mallen.
"Our meeting was accidental, and because of the task he was pursuing asked that it remain untold. Until I met Gremorgan I had quite forgotten the whole incident, but his earnest attempts at keeping his Dirge-compass hidden from view got me thinking on it all again."
"You have seen one before?" questioned the LoreMaster.
"Yes, actually. The Maturi Len had one. He explained he was using it to find something called a Sharyah. Wasn't having much success as I remember it."
With that the LoreMaster shook his head and smiled broadly. "It would seem that I have underestimated you Tomas. I will not make such a mistake again. Perhaps we should prepare for the journey that is ahead of us."
Both of the brothers agreed and turned quickly to the packing of their gear. When all was complete the three men stood before the wide mouth of the Pass of Adamant, looking down the enormous reach of the valley ahead of them.
"From what the Caer'dahl has given to me," said Gremorgan, "the Hresh will be found within the Shan Valleys at the end of this Pass. They are making for an ancient fortress known as Durgoz Hold; and according to what I have learned it is there that they have a way of returning to their homes in the Lands of Perdition. If we are to rescue Shemwe we must catch them before they can leave the Shan."
"Then we must move quickly." said Tomas quietly.
There could be no further discussion. As one they began to run.
Under a clear sky the three men ran into the east, the suns of morning bright quickly warming a landscape as yet untouched by the first chills of winter. Before them the Pass of Adamant reached as far as they could see, their passage bounded at their right shoulder by the mountains of the Keln'Kraag, and at their left by the formidable hills that reached northwards to the Great Rift. Between these granite bastions the pass was a wide line of grass, perfectly flat and devoid of tree or obstruction. On the thick grasses they ran, cutting paths of their own eastwards.
Morning quickly turned to afternoon, and in the hours before dusk a new landmark began to grow on the horizon ahead. At first it was a thin line of grey jutting from the edge of the Keln'Kraag at their right, but as the evening began to darken all the men were able to see that it was a line of colossal statues, carved from the rock of the mountains and set upon massive granite pedestals.
By the last glimmers of evening they reached the first of the statues and came to a halt. Before them arose a solid piece of carved stone, somehow artificed from the hard rock of the Keln'Kraag and formed into a massive representation of an ancient creature dressed in ceremonial robes. In its gigantic proportions it was perfectly carved, every detail of cloth and decoration finely etched, and untouched by weather or sun. It stood as if it had been raised yesterday.
In the ruddy twilight the statue stood at least two hundred metres tall, and to the east Mallen could see a further ten rising from the grassland. Both Tomas and Mallen looked to the Dwarvendim for a hint as to what they were.
The LoreMaster did not speak for a time. He had never seen these statues before, but he had heard of them.
"These statues are known as the Colossi of Adamant. It is said they were built by the ancient Trell as monuments to themselves, their purpose to awe their slaves with their power. I cannot tell you how they were built, or give any reason as to why they remain in such condition. I can say however, that even though the Hordim destroyed everything the Trell built after the Great Insurrection, they left these Colossi alone, seemingly content to leave these symbols of their Master's power intact. It is a mysterious thing."
The two brothers considered the vast monoliths, watching the dusk wash across the smooth stone as the suns set at their backs. Each of the Colossi held a weapon in a scabbard at their belts, only the hilt and pommel showing from beneath a heavy robe. Their faces were covered by a peaked hood, but enough of the face showed to give an impression of their visage. To Mallen it appeared similar to the Hresh, but more alien, almost reptilian.
It was Tomas who spoke, breaking the silence of nightfall.
"We should move on. These Colossi are a wonder but we cannot afford to tarry here."
Both Gremorgan and Mallen agreed, and together they turned again to the east.
Into the night the men ran, following the line of the Colossi as they moved towards the Pass of Adamant's end, and the promise of the Shan Valleys beyond. In the cool darkness there was little noise. With the onset of dusk the air had quickly chilled, the warmth of the suns lost to a northerly breeze that rolled off the Great Rift. All about the men there settled an unnerving silence, one broken only by the rustle of the grasses as the cold winds blustered about them. Upon the grass their footfalls were muffled by its thick cover, and apart from the movement of their packs upon their shoulders, and the laboured breathing of their exertion, there was little that could mark their passage. In a world of stars and dark, cold mountains they could have been completely alone. But they were not.
Against the stars a dark shadow moved unnoticed, sliding through the air silently on leathered wings. The Kreel was hungry, and on the prowl as it searched the ground for an easy kill. High above the grassland the winged reptile came to a halt, using the air currents to maintain a station directly above the running men. On this night hunger was its only motivation and it had found its next meal.
Carefully the Kreel descended, maintaining a wide arc that kept it slightly behind its prey, but high enough that it was masked by the night sky. Keen eyes focused down upon the smallest of the running figures, and razor-sharp claws flexed in readiness for the kill. One lethal strike and it would be away with its meal.
Through the cold air the creature swung low, its wings increasing their beat as it accelerated, skimming the grass as it aimed directly for Tomas. For the Kreel this would be an easy kill, and it savoured the memory of blood as it ran its tongue along jagged teeth. Swiftly and silently the flying nightmare arrowed in upon the Kalborean, all its focus concentrated on the back of the running man. When it was no more than fifty metres from its target the predator extended its claws, and it was then that its plan faltered.
Mallen felt the oncoming rush of the Kreel as a cold chill against his spine, a strange tingling anxiety that he could not ignore. He came to a halt and turned, only to see the huge flying creature speeding towards them. Instinctively he knew it was Tomas who was in danger.
"Tomas!" he yelled, pointing into the darkness, "Kreel!"
The younger Cael's life turned on a split second and there was no time for hesitation. Without turning to look he took Mallen at his word and flattened himself to the ground, rolling into the long grass and wet earth. The Kreel sped over the position where Tomas lay, a single claw raking through the grasses. Mallen heard a sharp cry of pain before watching the creature rise up in a long arc, beating its wings to gain altitude.
Mallen ran for his brother and found him entangled in the grass. Across his back he could see a line of torn clothing, from which blood ran freely. Quick thinking had saved his life but Tomas had been badly wounded nonetheless.
"Gremorgan!" Mallen called out. "I must stem this blood loss. Watch for the Kreel!"
The LoreMaster drew his axe from its fastenings and stood his ground beside the brothers. Mallen worked quickly on Tomas' torn flesh as the Dwarvendim searched the night for the return of the predator. He had no doubt that it would be back, for it had drawn blood and would not willingly leave its prey behind.
In the darkness the Kreel had disappeared, but it was not finished with the men. In a high sweeping arc the creature turned, finding a position directly above its prey, then dived, folding its wings close about its body. Like a stone it dropped, its long neck straight, its eyes pierced grooves in an armoured head as it fell upon them.
Gremorgan saw it first, a dark shape against the stars overhead.
"It is coming Mallen!" he yelled. "Get down into the grass. Now!"
Before the Kalborean could comply a great light erupted upon the grassland, a ball of incandescence that shone from Gremorgan's open palm, illuminating the Pass of Adamant and outlining in sharp detail the plummeting form of the Kreel. Within that light the Kreel recoiled, caught by the bright radiance of the orb, but still determined to have its feast.
Upon beating wings the creature came to earth and then attacked.
Without hesitation Gremorgan met it head-on. In the faltering illumination of the glowing sphere he ran at the beast, swinging his axe in wide arcs, forcing the Kreel to retreat away from the two brothers. The Kreel was not about to have its meal escape however. With a thrust of its wing it swept the Dwarvendim off his feet and advanced upon him. Gremorgan barely found his feet as he cut at the creature's head, tearing a deep gash across its jaw and throat. In the half-light of the battle Mallen could only see the thrashing limbs of the Kreel and the glimmering reflection of Gremorgan's axe, but above it all arose the screeching wail of the creature as it felt the sharp edge of the LoreMaster's blade. Within the space of a few heartbeats the deadly confrontation was over.
For a long moment the night closed in around Mallen as he peered into the gloom, looking for a sign of his friend. The orb of light had dissipated and in the darkness there was no movement, only the flickering stars above, and the first hint of a breeze blowing out of the north.
"Gremorgan!", he shouted into the night. The call travelled out into the Pass and then echoed back off the near mountains. The LoreMaster's reply came quickly.
"It is alright Master Cael. The Kreel is dead."
The Dwarvendim walked out of the darkness cradling his axe. Mallen could see pain spread across his face but there was only concern in his voice.
"How is your brother, Mallen?"
Mallen turned to Tomas and opened the back of his shirt. Across his shoulders lay the ragged mark of a claw. One of the Kreel's talons had cut deep, tearing muscle and shattering bone. The younger Cael had lost an unhealthy measure of blood.
"Right." said Gremorgan as he knelt beside the Kalborean. "Find my bags and dig out the pouch of white powder you have seen me use to close wounds."
Mallen made for the LoreMaster's bags and found the leather pouch. There was little enough of the powder left.
Gremorgan took the pouch and poured some of its contents over the open wound. In a fine cloud of mist the powder did its work, drawing the edges of the injury together and binding them with a thick layer of scarring. The LoreMaster poured a small amount of water over the wound and then reached for Mallen's arm.
"Your brother is lucky Mallen, in that he has someone of the same blood close at hand. If we are to bring Tomas back to a state where he may continue his quest, you will have to give up a small amount of your blood."
Without hesitation Gremorgan took his knife and cut into Mallen's arm, but only enough to bring blood easily onto a piece of cloth. With the blooded rag he wiped it across Tomas' wet skin and Mallen gasped as the scarring fell away, leaving his brother's shoulders clear of any visible injury. Gremorgan turned the Kalborean onto his back and wrapped him in a blanket.
"The wound has been closed, but the deeper effects of his injury are not so easily repaired. He has lost blood, and the tearing of his flesh will take longer to heal. I am afraid that we will have to camp here for at least a day whilst he recovers his strength."
Mallen slumped back onto the grass and rubbed at his arm. "I am only glad that Tomas will live, but he will not take such news well. I fear that Shemwe is now lost to us."
Gremorgan sat beside his companion and looked out into the darkness, towards the motionless shadow of the Kreel. In his mind an idea was forming.
"Have you heard of an artifact of the Trell known as a Callingstone?"
Mallen shook his head. He knew enough about the Dwarvendim to know that no question asked was ever just conversation.
"Well Master Cael, it appears to me that there is little chance that we can now catch the Warband. Tomas is injured, and even the recuperative powers of my powders, and some Nahla Cake thrown in, will not see us going anywhere quickly until he has healed. If we are to make ground on the Hresh we must find a means of transport that will give us an advantage over them."
"What is your idea, Gremorgan?"
"In ancient times the Trell found a way to gain control of the beasts of the world. Using a talisman known as a Callingstone, they could bring any creature to them, and for a short period of time hold them in their thrall. For what purposes I do not know, but the memory of such talismans gives me an idea."
Gremorgan pulled a small camp stove from his bags and cleared an area of ground for a fire.
"Do you have such a stone?" asked Mallen.
The Dwarvendim shook his head. "No. The talismans used by the Trell were tools produced only for the use of their slaves, so that they need not leave the comforts of their palaces to do the work themselves. A true wielder of EarthMagic does not require tools to do so. I am a LoreMaster Mallen, and for this task I need only wait for the dawn."
"But what could you summon that might help us? To carry us across the Shan Valleys we would need something large..." Mallen stopped as he got the first inkling of the LoreMaster's plan.
Gremorgan nodded and pointed to the north. "Within the mountains can be found the resting places of the Kreel. At dawn most will be returning to their nests after feeding, and it is the best time to take control of them. It is my thought that we take two of the Kreel and use them to make directly for Durgoz Hold. They will be able to cover in the span of a single morning what it would take us six days to run. I believe it is a risk worth taking."
Mallen was not convinced. "But Gremorgan, the Kreel are monsters; nightmares that inhabit the waking hours of any who live near the Great Rift. How can we make such a passage in safety?"
The LoreMaster looked up from the small fire he was coaxing into life and smiled at his friend.
"Control of the Kreel you can leave to me. There is only one thing that we need if we are to make a success of this venture, and unfortunately it must be hand-made before we can begin. Tomas will not be able to be moved for at least a day, so I propose the following. We camp here for the coming day. Let your brother recover his strength and then I will call the Kreel. If we do this we can yet turn our pursuit of the Hresh into a real race."
Mallen looked at Gremorgan and nodded. After what had happened to Tomas it seemed insane, but regardless of the danger he would do it because he knew his brother needed him to.
Tomas did not wake up that night, and Mallen spent those long hours watching over his brother. In the light of the small camp-stove the Kalborean could do little but wait as the recuperative energy of the white powders worked. At first Mallen had thought that Tomas had lost consciousness due to a blow to the head, but an examination of his scalp showed no injury. On this concern Gremorgan put his mind at rest. For the powders to work effectively against such a major wound it was necessary for him to remain at peace, unknowing of the battle being fought on his behalf.
As his brother breathed quietly beneath his blankets Gremorgan explained that Tomas should be dead, the tear in his flesh too deep to heal naturally. As they waited the powders were regenerating torn muscle, searing together bones broken, and resisting the inclination of Tomas' will to leave this world and pass into the next. The LoreMaster smiled at Mallen and assured him of the only thing that now mattered. His brother would live.
For some time Mallen remained focused on his brother's breathing, waiting for that fateful moment when no further breath would come; but Gremorgan was right, as the hours passed his breathing grew in strength and then colour returned to his face. In time he came to believe that his brother would indeed live.
Surrounded by darkness he felt the cold chill of a growing wind, and with a need to find his travel-cloak arose from the grass to find his pack. He had thrown it to one side when he had gone to his brother's aid and had thought little of it. As he stood Mallen took the time to stretch his legs and survey the ground about them. In the chill night air the stars burned brightly, and at both sides of the Pass he could see the dark silhouettes of the mountains that bordered it. Within this vacant space of rippling grassland only the fire shone out, and in its light Mallen could see that Gremorgan had been very busy.
Scattered about the contained flame of the camp-stove were all the LoreMaster's belongings. He had brought four satchel-like bags with him and all but one had been cut apart, the contents of the other three spread about as Gremorgan took to them with knife and scissors. All his rope and climbing gear, the leather of the three bags, and the thick cloth of Gremorgan's own travel-cloak were being cut and stitched, tied and platted into what Mallen soon recognised as a harness.
"For the Kreel?" he asked.
The Dwarvendim nodded and threw him a piece of the Nahla cake. "There is more to riding a Kreel than simply calling them. If you are to control the beast it must be harnessed, and unfortunately we must make do with what I can put together from this meagre supply. From what you have told me in the past Mallen, you are no stranger to horse riding. The Kreel is different only in that you must take mastery of it in three dimensions."
"Yes, but a Horse won't tear you to pieces and eat your still-beating heart." said Mallen dubiously.
Gremorgan laughed then shook his head. "Today you saw a creature in the midst of its need to kill for survival, clear-headed and in control of its own destiny. There can be no doubt that they are dangerous beasts, but the two Kreel we will take to the Durgoz Hold will be unable to cause us harm. When they are called it will be against their will that they shall answer. All the energy of their existence will be consumed in trying to break the hold I will have upon them, and they will fail to do so. Where they will fly, and who they will carry will be of no moment to them, for they will be engaged in a battle that EarthMagic will win easily. When we leave them they will remember nothing and we will hopefully be closer to our goal."
The LoreMaster returned to his work and waved Mallen back to his brother. "Find your blanket and sleep Master Cael. It has been a long day and one I am sure we will both be glad to see the end of. I will continue with the artifice of these harnesses until the dawn, then I will ask you to stand watch for a time whilst I sleep. We may seem to be alone but it is better that we remain alert nonetheless."
Mallen grabbed up his pack and unslipped the straps that held his blanket tightly rolled. It had indeed been a long day, and with nothing more than the stars overhead made a place beside his brother before falling into sleep.
Morning came bright and clear, a strong northerly wind blowing off the cold summits of the Great Rift. For a moment Mallen collected his thoughts, the sound of the wind rushing through the grasses around him a curious distraction that kept him huddled within his blanket. Gremorgan was close, the product of his labours during the night coiled at his side. When he noticed that the Kalborean was awake he lifted a steaming pot of water before him.
"It will be better that you have something warm in you before you start this day Mallen." Purposefully he pointed towards the mountains and made an arc with his hand. "There will be no storms today but the wind carries with it a heavy scent of rain. We can only hope that the weather does not turn before we can make our flight into the east."
In the keen bluster Mallen pulled his blanket about him and made for the fire. In the early light he noticed that Gremorgan had erected a small windbreak, made from sods of earth, to ward the worst of the chill from Tomas. It was a small consideration that Mallen appreciated. As he looked about the Pass he could see the last of the Colossi rearing up before them to the east. He had become used to their size, but as he peered into the morning haze there arose a darker silhouette, and it dwarfed the Colossi as a mature tree might overreach a sapling. Although it stood at a great distance it appeared as a robed, kneeling figure; one arm straight at its side, the other outstretched before it, holding in its hand a sword pointing at the ground. Its head was tilted earthwards as if in prayer.
Mallen said nothing but Gremorgan could see he was awed at its dimension.
"What you see Mallen is the Fortress known as Adamant. It is what names this pass, and the Colossi that have been our silent companions. In the ancient world Adamant was the seat of power of the Trell, both their capital and their last resort in the war of Insurrection that brought them down. It is said that a betrayal opened the gates of Adamant to the besieging Hresh and the Trell were forced to flee into the far north-west, where they met their ultimate doom at Nem'haleen. It is a place that we shall not be visiting."
"It is huge." whispered Mallen, "Why does it still stand?"
The LoreMaster cocked his head towards the nearest Colossi. "I can only assume for the same reason that the Colossi show no age or weathering. It is something that I have no answer for, but there must be a reason regardless of my ignorance of it. One day both Adamant and the Colossi will serve a purpose, but until then it is wise to keep a safe distance."
For a time Mallen looked on the fortress and then turned to his brother.
"How long until Tomas will awaken?" he asked.
The LoreMaster shifted his gaze to the younger Cael and then back towards Mallen. "It will be no longer than midday. The powders have done their job but it will take a few hours yet before he will be strong enough to rise on his own."
Mallen nodded and looked to the north. The wind was rising quickly, a blustering gale that rippled through the grassland in giant waves, sending loose ground litter voyaging southwards. He could tell it was going to get very cold.
"Is it possible that we might call the Kreel now, and make our way into the east before the weather grows any worse?"
Gremorgan shook his head. "Your brother may awaken shortly, but it will be at least another half-day before he will be able to make the ride safely. Do not worry too much on this Mallen. Fate will give us the opportunity we desire. We need only be patient."
On the need for patience Mallen could not promise restraint. He felt the need to move on keenly and knew that Tomas would have felt the same restlessness, but there was nothing that could be done. They would all have to wait.
The day marched on slowly. In the blustering winds Mallen contented himself with watching over Tomas as Gremorgan slept, and trying to find warmth in a land that had been firmly grasped by the chill of winter. Small pieces of the Nahla cake helped, its strange effects taking the numbness from his hands and feet; but none of them were properly equipped for a northern winter, and he wondered how they might survive the harsher conditions that were sure to come. There was however, a surety in Mallen's mind that Gremorgan would see them through. No matter the difficulty the LoreMaster had always found a way. It seemed to be in his nature and Mallen was glad for it.
Midday came and as Gremorgan had predicted Tomas awoke. It took some further hours for him to find strength returning to his limbs, and it was not until dusk that he was strong enough to be told of their plan. For Tomas it was the answer to all the fears that had haunted his dreams.
Tomas had not slept peacefully. The quiet slumber of the long hours of his recovery had been a prison for the young Kalborean. Within the grasp of the healing powders he had been confronted by all the fears he held for Shemwe, played out within his dreams in chilling detail. Deliberately he recounted the nightmares that had visited him during his sleep and they left Mallen cold. They were not a surprise to the LoreMaster however.
As they sat by the small fire, chewing on Nahla cake and watching as the suns disappeared slowly into the west, Gremorgan explained the nature of the visions Tomas had experienced.
"The powders must succeed in two ways if they are to save a person from deep injury. They must first bind flesh and bone so that natural healing can begin, and they must bolster the will of the injured so that they might find a path back to health. As I have said to Mallen, it is easy for a man, badly torn and abused, to succumb to the call of the other side and find peace away from the pain and grief of his wounds. But how the powders work is different for those who must use them. Those who are lucky find themselves wandering within a void that has no pain; a grey nothingness within which they exist until they return to consciousness. A few however, troubled by tasks not yet complete, are assaulted by the worst of their fears, drawing the consciousness of the injured away from their pain and into a frightening melee of frustration and horror. This is the path you took Tomas, and no matter its difficulty it has brought you back to the living."
Tomas nodded. "It is a truth that it was a hard path, but it has passed now. I can only hope I do not have to experience it again."
In the firelight Mallen could see that his brother had not yet recovered from his ordeal. The younger Kalborean's face remained drawn from the effort of his healing, and his shoulders sagged beneath blankets that gave little defence from the blustering winds.
"I believe it is time for sleep Tomas." he said.
"It is time that you both find rest." interjected Gremorgan. "I will take the first watch, and wake Mallen at midnight to guard the remainder of the night. The Kreel will be out, but the moons will rise early. If we are lucky they will keep to the mountains. All of us must be awake at dawn. It is then that I will call the Kreel."
Mallen helped his brother back to the windbreak and covered him with his blanket and a thick layer of grass. When he was sure that Tomas would settle into sleep he found a space at his brother's side and made ready for his own rest. He did not remember closing his eyes.
To his surprise it was in the first glimmers of dawn that Gremorgan roused Mallen from sleep. Above him the sky was clear of cloud, the last of the brightest stars faltering in a vault of deep blue. He could hear still the wind rushing over the grassland, but it was the shadow of the LoreMaster that he focused on.
"Was I not to do a watch during the night?" he asked sleepily.
Gremorgan shrugged and pulled the Kalborean up from his resting place. "In the end I decided to take the night for my own Master Cael. It has been a long time since I have had the opportunity to simply sit and think, and it has been of great benefit to me. But come now, it is time for us to prepare. Wake your brother and we will call some monsters to our side."
With a smile the LoreMaster made for his remaining satchel as Mallen roused his brother. Gremorgan had already packed his gear and he waited as the brothers organised themselves for the day. Quickly they worked, stowing their bedding and making what ablutions they could before the LoreMaster handed them each a piece of Nahla cake.
"There is one thing that must be explained before I call the Kreel, gentlemen." he shouted into the growing gales. "The Kreel we call cannot be chosen. The two that are closest will come, whether old or young, energetic or diseased. There is a good chance that one will prove faster than the other, and quickly we will become separated when in flight. Of all the things that can be controlled, the speed at which they fly is not one of them. Because of this you must know the way to Durgoz Hold. The Hresh are heading there and it must be our objective as well."
Gremorgan pointed to the Fortress of Adamant. "The pass extends beyond the fortress and opens into the Shan Valleys beyond. Once you are in the air you need only follow the pass to the east and then keep on that heading. In time you will meet with the Shan River, and then you must follow it northwards. The River is a landmark you cannot miss and it will take you to a long bridge that crosses the waters. The bridge is an arrow that points directly to Durgoz Hold in the north-east. Follow that heading and you shall find the Hold."
Both the Kalboreans nodded. They had not thought that there might be a chance they could be separated, but the directions were clear enough.
"And one last thing. Whoever arrives first at the gates to the Hold must wait for the other. The Kreel must be released from their bondage together, and only when we are not within their sight. If this is done correctly they shall not remember what has been done, and they shall return to their nests."
Mallen took up his pack and looked at Tomas. "Are you ready?" he asked his brother.
Tomas nodded and both men stood at a short distance behind the LoreMaster. Gremorgan laid out the harnesses on the grass and placed his pack by his side. In the early morning light he began.
Mallen had seen the LoreMaster work his magic before, but as he stood beside his brother he felt something deep and powerful rising through the ground beneath them. It was a sense of expectation, of powers seldom used being gathered in the bedrock of the world. And yet he could also perceive there was no malice in its essence. It was just power, and it was marshalling itself to be released.
Standing in the face of the growing winds Gremorgan raised his hands and began to chant. It started as a bare whisper, a long exhalation of breath that echoed within his thoughts, and then grew as the words found strength and purpose within the cold gales. At first his dirge was incomprehensible in the bluster, a flowing stream of ancient incantation that wove its way into the winds, turning the gales about him, focusing the energy of the rushing air upon Gremorgan himself. Within the swirling air Mallen felt the power beneath his feet growing, a potent energy that strained for release; but only a small part of its power was required, and the LoreMaster took it piecemeal as it was needed.
In rushing gusts the winds that had been caught within the LoreMaster's vortex were thrown back towards the mountains. With each charge of power Gremorgan shouted into the gales, the ancient words clear as he loosed his incantation.
"krehl, commen ahn mahre!" he commanded, and as he did so the winds coalesced into writhing packets of EarthMagic that sped as arrows towards the far mountains. Over and over again he did so, calling the words and throwing his messengers out into the cold peaks of the Great Rift. When he was done he staggered backwards for a moment, then took a deep breath and straightened himself.
"It is done." he said softly. "Now all we must do is wait, and it will not be long."
All three men watched, waiting for Gremorgan's call to be answered. About them the winds remained constant, the suns climbing slowly in the east as the world embraced the light of day. It was no more than twenty minutes before the first speck of black against the sky heralded the coming of the first Kreel.
"It is there!", shouted Tomas as he pointed towards the mountains. Upon the jagged outline of the Rift a shadow raced across the grey stone, then grew into the discernible shape of a Kreel winging its way directly towards them. Within minutes it took up a station directly overhead, maintaining a wide circle at high altitude.
"Watch what the Kreel does Gentlemen. It is their way that they do not descend or ascend in a straight line unless they are plummeting upon a kill. In normal flight they change altitude only in long sweeping curves and it is something you must remember. If you wish to rise or fall whilst riding the beast it must be in that fashion as well."
Mallen watched as the huge winged lizard slowly spiralled above him. It was an effortless glide, borne of a lifetime of experience using the strong winds to keep itself aloft. Silently it made its orbit but did not come any closer. It was definitely waiting for something.
"Why does it remain on high?" he called to Gremorgan.
"I have commanded it so." replied the LoreMaster. "It will not descend until it has been met by another of its number. If we are to be successful we must have two of the creatures close as we harness them."
The Kalborean turned and watched intently. It was Tomas who saw the next Kreel flying in from the north.
"Another comes!" he cried into the winds, and all eyes turned towards the second. Slowly it also found its own station high above, then began a wide spiral that brought it, and the first, to ground only thirty metres from where the men stood. Neither Mallen nor Tomas moved until Gremorgan called. The Kreel were enormous.
In the bright light of day the creatures sat squat against the grass, their huge forms resting upon powerful legs that sported long dagger-like talons. To the surprise of both of the Kalboreans the Kreel were not the drab grey they had assumed them to be. Both were a pale bone colour over most of their bodies, but across their backs and heads a mottled green predominated, thinning in a spreading wash of blue over the upper surfaces of their wings. The Kreel stood more than two metres at the shoulder and although their wings were folded in about their bodies, Mallen estimated their wingspans at more than twelve metres each. Upon the grass the creatures sat and waited, seemingly entranced and unmoving.
"Quickly," yelled Gremorgan as he threw one of the harnesses to the brothers. "Follow my lead and drape the harness across the back of that Kreel. I will tighten it properly once I have finished with this one."
The LoreMaster had pointed at the larger of the beasts and tentatively Mallen and Tomas approached, testing the intent of the Kreel before getting too close. It seemed oblivious to their presence, but up close the creature was a nightmare of razor-sharp scales and teeth. Both men avoided its head as they followed Gremorgan's directions on how to place the harness.
In essence the harness was similar to that of a horse's, but on a much larger scale. The LoreMaster had built two seats into its design, and as the leather and rope lengths were draped over the Kreel's body Mallen came to understand the logic in its manufacture. Long lengths of rope would extend around its body at two points, both in front of and behind the Kreel's wings, other lengths of plaited leather held the seats firmly to the creature's body between the wings. Gremorgan had provided a set of reins and a metal bit to allow a rider to pull the creature's head in any direction required. Mallen decided he would not be the one to place the bit in the Kreel's mouth.
Quickly Gremorgan fitted the harness to his mount and then did the same to the other. As he pulled and tightened the ropes and leathers he explained how the creature had to be flown.
"These Kreel do not know where they are, nor will they take any notice of who rides them. All that is required is to keep the creature pointing in the right direction and it will do everything else itself. If you must turn in any direction pull upon the reins so that the creature's head moves towards that path. If you must gain altitude pull on both reins so that the Kreel's head is pulled back, it will then turn upwards. If you need to descend, pull down on one of the reins and the Kreel will begin a slow spiral downwards. If you must land pull down on one of the reins and kick the creature with both your heels. It is as simple as that."
"And how do we get the thing in the air?" asked Tomas.
Gremorgan smiled and pointed at the top of the Kreel's bony head. "Hit the Kreel upon the back of the head. The Word that keeps the creature in thrall tells it how it must react to your directions. A good crack on the plates upon the back of its head will get you going. Just hold on tight. It is quite a ride."
With the harnesses secure Gremorgan helped the Kalboreans onto the back of their Kreel. First Tomas was placed firmly within his seat and strapped down, then Mallen took up his position, the reins of the beast his to command. Upon the back of the Kreel Mallen could feel the creature breathing, a slow steady rhythm that he was afraid might change at any time. He could sense the enormous strength coiled in the muscles and sinew of the flying predator, and he could not quell the anxiety he felt that it would turn on them. But in the cool morning air the beast sat quiescent, and above all else he trusted the LoreMaster.
While they waited Gremorgan took his place upon the other Kreel, strapped himself to the harness, and then motioned to his companions. It was time to leave.
Mallen hit the Kreel with his fist on a ridge of bony plates at the back of its head. Immediately the beast raised itself upon its legs and sprang forward. Almost before the two men could take a firm enough hold the Kreel beat its wings, huge breast muscles contracting as its leathered limbs clawed at the air. In three beats the Kreel was airborne, and for the first time in his life Mallen left the solid confines of his world.
As he struggled to take control of the Kreel the ground fell away, and as it did so a terror came upon him. Never had the ground been so distant, and as the creature gained altitude he held to the reins, hoping the straps that secured him to the harness would not fail. All about him was air, and the buffeting rush of the wind as the predator rose higher and began accelerating. Carefully he turned and looked to his brother. Tomas was holding onto the harness with a death-grip, but his face was looking own at the earth below, and he saw upon his visage a look of wonder that calmed Mallen and forced him to focus on what he was doing.
Tentatively he drew the Kreel into level flight and searched the sky for Gremorgan. The LoreMaster was on their left shoulder, a few hundred metres above their position, but he was moving away, veering into the east. Mallen adjusted the heading of the Kreel, falling in behind the Dwarvendim; and as the ground moved slowly beneath them he took the time to search out the landmarks that would show them the way to Durgoz Hold.
Ahead lay the enormous edifice that was the Fortress of Adamant. Even from their altitude the fortress remained impressive, and as they drew closer Mallen began to realise the real scale of the structure. It was in fact, not a kneeling figure at all, but a series of cunningly interconnected towers and walls designed to give the impression of a praying form at a distance. The towers could be seen as clearly defined structures, but all about the edifice spread the remains of a city, of walls long destroyed, and roads covered by millennia of neglect. As Mallen peered down he saw also the vague outlines of other buildings, of entire towns and complexes, connected by straight roads and interspersed between ancient farmlands and vineyards. All were now nothing but grass, but somehow their height gave him the ability to see what remained, even though it was buried beneath the thick grasses of the Pass.
Quickly the Kreel took them out of the Pass at Adamant into the wider lands of the Shan Valleys. Here the ground was open and fertile, a wide vista of river plains bordered by mountains, and cut along its centre by the Shan River itself. From their vantage Mallen could see the river as a dark line against the horizon and he made for it, the Kreel steadily covering the distance with each beat of its enormous wings.
As they flew it was difficult not to ponder the enormous landscape that moved beneath them. All through the Shan Valleys the strange markings of a long dead civilisation showed itself as lines and dark patches upon the verdant green below. From what Gremorgan had said there had been a great empire centred in these valleys, one that had met a ruinous end at the hands of an enemy that had showed no mercy. Almost everything had been destroyed, yet the Fortress and Colossi of Adamant remained pristine. He could see the mystery of it, but knew it was a question he would find no answer for.
As he looked down at the ground Mallen felt Tomas grab his shoulder. He turned to find his brother pointing to the north.
"Its Gremorgan," he shouted into the rushing winds. "He is gone. I cannot see him anywhere."
Mallen quickly surveyed the horizon and could see nothing. "Whatever happens Tomas," he replied, "we will keep to the plan. I am sure he will be there!"
It was a sentiment whose surety disappeared as quickly as the words were lost to the wind. Mallen had been watching the ground moving beneath them and had not noticed Gremorgan's departure. For a fleeting moment he found himself doubting his ability to control the beast alone, but he knew where he was going and stuck to the heading, letting the Kreel forge on towards the Shan River.
Two hours brought the men to the flow of the Shan, and carefully Mallen turned the Kreel to the north-west, following the meander of its waters. The river itself was enormous, a wide but shallow watercourse that had its source in the distant mountains. Mallen knew that the Shan was not as long, nor as reliable as the Laneslem to the south, but he had heard much discussion on the possibilities of using the river to settle the valleys. Apart from the lands of central Kalborea in the far south there were few places as fertile as the Shan to be found in Arborell. But for the fact that the Great Rift was so close, and therefore the Hordim as well, it would have been already been settled.
The Kreel did not falter as Mallen carefully steered it along the line of the river. The day had remained clear, their visibility reaching to the haze of the horizon in all directions. As Mallen kept the Kreel on course Tomas searched the banks of the Shan, looking for the long bridge that would be their landmark to turn in towards the mountains. If the LoreMaster's directions were correct the entrance to Durgoz Hold should be easy to find. Not everything about their flight however, was proving to be as straightforward.
Since entering the Pass of Adamant the weather had turned cold, the winds of the north strong and relentless in their passage from the high mountains of the Rift. At the altitude they were flying the winds were chilling, and in the rushing air there was no escape from its effects. Slowly the cold had found its way through all their clothing, and it had been only the small amount of Nahla Cake they had carried with them that kept the frigid air at bay. Even so Mallen could feel his hands numbing, his lower legs tingling as if the blood supply had been cut from his limbs. It would not be long before he would lose all feeling in his feet and he knew he could not allow that to happen.
Behind him Tomas was fairing no better.
"The cold is becoming too much for me Tomas." He shouted to his brother. "I am going to put the Kreel down much closer to the ground. We may find some respite at a lower altitude."
Tomas nodded and held on all the tighter as Mallen dragged the reins to the right and downwards. Immediately the Kreel responded, beginning a slow spiral that took them in a wide arc, descending towards the flowing waters of the Shan.
When they were no more than fifty metres from the ground Mallen levelled the Kreel, and then returned to following the banks of the river. Around them the winds still blew, but the cold proved less insistent and Mallen began to feel some life returning to his legs.
At this lower altitude the speed of the Kreel was almost overwhelming. At altitude the progress of their flight had been marked by the slow march of the ground beneath them. It was a deceptive impression of steady travel, without any indication of the true speed they were flying at. Closer to the ground the creature's velocity took their breath away. Upon the Kreel the ground sped past like a blanket being pulled quickly from a bed. Trees darted past the creature's wings, landmarks and shallow hills gone before the Kalboreans could recognise what they had left behind. It was an inexorable parade of speeding terrain that led them directly to the bridge at the Shan River.
From the flat grassland ahead a tall tower arose, high and solid against the river's edge. Quickly the brothers searched the river for sign of a bridge, and found it as a long line of derelict arches that spanned the rushing waters. At both ends of the bridge stood a tall watchtower and as Mallen turned the Kreel he lined up the towers, marking a deep cleft in the far mountains as his objective. Without stopping to consider the ancient structure he turned the Kreel onto its new heading and made for Durgoz Hold.
At a rapid pace the fertile grasslands fell behind the brothers, and soon they rose into a thickly forested woodland, then a series of foothills that the Kreel followed faithfully, using the air currents to maintain a consistent height above the cold hills. To the north the Massif of the Great Rift lay as an impassable barrier of grey stone, barren and windswept, crowned with summits of gleaming snow and ice.
Within the confines of the foothills Mallen strove to keep the Kreel on its heading, the creature's natural inclination to follow the curves of the terrain drawing it to the south, but the predator was under the thrall of the LoreMaster and it took Mallen's commands without hesitation. Quickly they made the edge of the mountains themselves, and beneath an enormous crack in a shear cliff found the remnants of a wide plateau of stone. Upon this shelf of rock opened the entrance to Durgoz Hold.
At great speed they made the plateau and Mallen turned the Kreel in an arc that allowed them to search for any sign of Gremorgan. He was not on the plateau but the bright coloration of his Kreel could be seen in a shallow depression to the east of the rock-shelf. Without really knowing what he was doing, Mallen pulled the Kreel's head to the right and kicked it in the flanks with his boots. The beast screeched once and then turned, spiralling down in a flat curve towards the other of its kind. Quickly the ground rose to greet them and with a bone-jarring crunch the Kreel came to rest upon a slope of loose scree. For a moment both brothers did not move. It was Tomas who spoke first.
"Lets get off this thing before it remembers who it is, eh?"
Mallen did not feel like arguing and moved to unstrap his legs. It was then that he felt the full affects of the flight. Both legs were numb, all sensation lost to them in the insistent cold of their travels. Carefully he pulled one, then the other over the side of the beast, but too late he realised his error. Without being able to stop himself he slid from the side of the Kreel and hit the ground, rolling onto the scree and stopping directly under the head of his mount. The Kreel looked down at him and then sniffed at his hair.
"Probably not the best place to end up, Master Cael." came a voice from further down the slope. It was Gremorgan, and he appeared hurried.
"You have arrived in a timely manner, but we will have to move quickly. The Kreel must be set free for we will shortly have visitors."
Without ceremony the LoreMaster scooped up the older brother and placed him further up the edge of the depression. Then quickly he stripped the harnesses from the Kreel and directed Tomas to give Mallen another piece of Nahla cake. When the harnesses had been discarded the LoreMaster turned to his companions.
"Before we do anything we must release the Kreel from their bondage." Purposefully he surveyed the scree slope and pointed to a gathering of large boulders. "We shall hide here whilst I recant the Word that has held them to our service."
Carefully Tomas helped Mallen into the shadows of the boulders and Gremorgan followed. When all were out of sight the LoreMaster whispered quietly into a handful of powdered rock he had scooped from the ground. As the two brothers watched Gremorgan let the dust go, the wind taking hold of it, carrying it in a writhing plume towards the squatting Kreel. The moment the wind-borne dust touched the first winged lizard the manner of the predators changed. From docile and compliant the larger Kreel became angered, shaking its head and snapping at the smaller. The other Kreel cowered and retreated, taking no time to rise once again into the air. The larger Kreel raised its head and let loose an ear-piercing screech that echoed off the nearby cliff-face and sounded loudly out into the foothills below them. Before Mallen could take his hands from his ears the creature was gone, a quickly shrinking shadow against the perfect blue of the sky.
Gremorgan turned to his friends and smiled slightly.
"It would seem that Fate has treated us kindly. We have arrived in safety and I can tell you now that the Hresh are only minutes from our position." He pointed into the west, towards the edge of the depression and the plateau beyond.
"Just on the other side of the rock-shelf the warband is struggling up an ancient path towards us. Their intention is to make for the entrance. Somewhere inside the Hold is what they need to make for the other side of the Great Rift. If we are to retrieve Shemwe it must be here that we do it."
Tomas stood and unsheathed his sword. Mallen found the warmth returning to his legs and struggled to his feet. "We are ready. Let us take back that which is ours."
All three men climbed up the loose scree and took positions against the edge of the plateau. From where he lay Mallen could see the rock shelf as a wide, open rectangle of broken stone, once a perfectly laid floor of flagstones, but fractured and worn by millennia of exposure to the elements. The entrance to Durgoz Hold sat against the shear cliff-face to the north, a gaping arch bordered by two huge statues, each a smaller representation of the Colossi they had left far behind in the Pass of Adamant. Between the statues he could see something else although the distance did not allow him to recognise it properly. It seemed as if something had been chained to the statues but he could not be sure. Gremorgan was also looking towards the entrance intently. He did not seem pleased.
"This is an unforeseen complication, and it is one that makes our need to retrieve Shemwe here all the more important. See between the statues? There is a creature there; what the Hordim would call a Grievous. It is a guardian of sorts, and a formidable one to place at the entrance of such an old ruin. There must be something truly important within the Hold to warrant such a sentinel."
Tomas peered over the lip of the plateau and then turned back to Gremorgan. "What is it exactly?" he asked. "And why does it make Shemwe's recovery any more urgent?"
Gremorgan pointed to the entrance. "The creature itself is a Hresh, but one that has been turned and distorted through cruelty and hunger. Such has been the treatment it has received that it has lost its mind, reduced to a ravening chained animal that will kill anything that comes within the reach of its bonds. Only those that have set it here will be able to pass safely, and I have no doubt the Denmar Hresh are its masters."
"But it is not the creature itself that is the problem. Around its neck it will be carrying a talisman of the ancient world known as a Shieldstone. Although we cannot see it there will be a wall of energy covering the entire entranceway. The Hresh will be able to get through it for they will have a key. We do not."
"Then we must take Shemwe here. This is the place where we make our attempt." Tomas had a tight grip on his sword and Mallen could see the determination in his brother's eyes.
Gremorgan nodded. "Yes, it must be here. But I must tell you that there is one other surviving prisoner, and she must be recovered as well."
Mallen stood and walked out onto the plateau. "There seems little point in hiding then. If the Hresh are coming we must stand between them and the Hold or all will be lost."
Gremorgan also stood and Tomas followed. Quickly they moved out onto the open ground and waited. The Grievous saw them as well, and howled like a wild animal as it strained against its chains. Mallen did not hear it. All the struggle of their pursuit; the endless days of fatigue and privation had come to this, and he was focused only on the battle to come. All he could sense was the presence of Tomas and Gremorgan at his side, and the cold weight of his sword in his hand. And then he saw them. Over the edge of the rise the Hresh were coming.
End of Episode 14
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