Tall, dark trees loomed over him, daring him into the silent forest. A fierce attraction, a feeling inside of his heart drew him into it. He felt like a crane fly, impelled to dart straight for the nearest flame...but there was no flame: beyond the first few rows of pines lay nothing but shadows. Dense, heavy, grave, black shadows. Such a magical mind as his could not have resisted its call, even if he had wanted to.
Xzindra stared into the wood, his eyes glistening red as rubies, burrowing into the darkness. The only lives he observed were those of the plants before him; no animals had been here in a long time. All he heard was his nervous breathing. Above him, the blood-crimson sky did not shift in colour or brightness as the sun rose over the towering mountains in the east, just as it would not darken as it set. Time was always still in this place.
He lingered for a moment longer. Should he proceed? Of course not. Dragons were not safe alone anywhere in Elothar, least of all in these black woods. The Karura could strike at any time, from any place. He turned his long neck around and looked back towards the plains. They were miles behind him now. He had wandered too far from his pack.
But what was this sensation? Some strange desire, an enchantment that he just couldn’t deny was propelling him into the unknown. What was it? He had to find out.
He took his first step into the forest--
--and his scaled legs froze beneath him. A high, torturous shriek battered and ravaged and clawed at his ears. He shut his eyes tight, his mind burning with alarm, and roared in pain.
After an immeasurable while, but as suddenly as it had begun, the sound stopped. He jerked his head around to look for any possible source of it, but saw none. Xzindra growled and tried to shake off the feeling of insecurity that had suddenly taken over him. Then he scolded himself for coming anywhere near the forest that his kind had feared for so long. He was about to turn and leave this forbidden place…when he saw a tiny glistening thing, far into the dreadful depths of the wood. Even from the distance, he could see that it crackled and sparked in a way no natural thing should, and it was surrounded by a shining white...something.
It was like nothing he had ever seen, not that he had seen much of interest in this forgotten, unchanging land: only his fellow beasts, the plants and occasionally the frolicking beings that dwelt within them. Sometimes the faeries would play with magic candles, which they called wisps, but this was no wisp. He knew it could not be fire, because he breathed flames, and though radiant, fire was not quite as amazing as this. If he hadn’t seen it there, he wouldn’t have believed that it existed.
But he had. And that feeling, so strong, was still pulling him. So Xzindra did the only thing he could.
Very cautiously, he began to tread towards it. The piercing noise did not return; it must have been caused by the appearance of the sparkling thing, he assumed. Shadows began to surround him. Unless he glanced back at the plains, which were constantly illuminated by the red sky, the only light was the enigma that he was headed towards. Eventually, even the view behind him was swallowed by darkness as he moved ever forwards. The dragon took a deep breath as he walked on, and spat a flame out into air before him. Trees at either side of him were lit up for a second, before the ember vanished into smoke. The older dragons, those who practised magic, could keep a ball of fire suspended in the air for as long as they needed it, just like the faeries’ wisps. Xzindra was still young and had had little practice. He could keep a stream of fire pouring for quite a while: that required no special skill, but it would probably set the forest alight. How he wished he had brought his guardians with him now.
As he drew closer to the shining object, he began to realise something fantastic: it was no object. It was translucent, ghastly, and like a fireball or a wisp, it was floating above the ground. It was bigger than he had thought, too. In fact, it looked about as tall and wide as Xzindra himself. He stopped before it. A chilling shiver crept from the back of his head, down his long spine and to the barb at the end of his tail. He crouched low. The feeling in his head, the pulling, was now urging him to leap.
The shaking stopped. The Swordmaster lay motionless, naked but for his stretched undergarments, at the side of a road. He stayed that way, his heartbeat gradually slowing down, his breaths deepening, until he felt ready to move again. He could never grow accustomed to the aching of the bones after these nights. He lifted his elbows and pushed his hands into the thick, sludgy, brown puddle beneath him, forcing himself, steadily, onto his knees. His head pounded. He wondered who or what he had killed, and whether he had fed. He sighed. But of course he had fed: his stomach was in agony; his belly bulged out in front of him like that of a woman expecting a baby. He was going to be sick.
He dropped onto all fours and began to retch. He tasted bile in his mouth, and smelled something putrid like rotten meat in his breath, but he didn’t vomit. After some time, he managed to gather some strength and rose onto his feet.
His sword. Where was his sword? And his cloak? He was freezing. His other clothes had probably been torn to shreds last night but his cloak always survived. He searched the area, each step feeling like a blow to his head. He eventually found his long, curved blade wedged into a tree trunk, and his cloak, caught in a branch high above. The Great Spirits knew how it had gotten up there.
The Swordmaster pulled his blade free and took a few steps backwards, his keen eyes measuring the cloak’s distance from the ground and from him. When he was satisfied, he readied the sword in his right hand, lifted it up over his head and lobbed it. It whirled through the air with the speed of a desperate predator. Its hilt caught the cloak and dragged it free of the branch’s grasp, before plummeting down with it to the ground. The Swordmaster collected the voluminous brown rag and wrapped it around him.
The clo-clop, clo-clop of horseshoes against stone faded into his hearing. He looked behind him to see the far-off figure of a black steed bearing a rider. The Swordmaster paid it no mind and sat himself down against the tree to rest. He closed his eyes and relaxed. His right hand loosely grasped the weapon at his side. He would feel better in an hour or so, and then he would proceed to the Sage Towers.
Clo-clop, clo-clop, clop... As the hoofbeats grew louder, they began to slow down, before they eventually stopped. The Swordmaster gripped his blade a little tighter. He opened his eyes. On the road was the horse, black as night, the largest he had ever seen. Its reins and saddle were as black as its fur. Mounted atop the beast was a strange man. Ebony armour covered his body from his shoulders to his toes. A deep purple cape hung about him. His face looked extraordinarily white; his pallid skin lacked any wrinkles, but his long white hair made it impossible to guess at his age. When he realised the man was staring intently at him, the Swordmaster stood. He waited for a while. The rider made no move.
“What do you want?” asked the Swordmaster.
...The pale man kept staring for another few moments. Then he blinked, and his upper lip curled backwards in disgust or fear. His teeth were sharp; upon seeing them, a wave of some foggy feeling, perhaps familiarity, pulsed through the Swordmaster’s mind, and then was gone.
The rider’s arm darted upwards. He opened out his palm to the Swordmaster, and a fay light shone in the middle...but nothing happened. The stranger swore. Whatever illegal magic he had tried to employ, it had failed.
The Swordmaster raised his blade and slashed at the outstretched arm. The magician swayed backwards in retreat, almost off the side of his horse, then sprang with inhuman speed towards his opponent, like a cat at a mouse.
The Swordmaster was no mouse. He swerved out of his assailant’s way, but felt the sharp metal of the man’s black gauntlet dig into his cheek as he turned. His face flushed red with primal anger. Whatever vendetta this sorcerer had against him, he would regret drawing the blood of Marik the Swordmaster.
Drip... Drip... Drip...
Water steadily splashed from the stone ceiling, deep within the dank caves of Hresgr. A crowd of tawny, hairless creatures sat in fixated anticipation. Their red and grey eyes gleamed with a thirst for blood. Their fanged mouths were ajar and dripping with saliva. Forked tongues lolled out. Long, thin tails with spikes at their tips waved and whipped in excitement.
Their focal point was the same: from a hole in the ceiling, a single beam of light bore down through the darkness and illuminated the largest of the goblins. Gerdel crouched over the carcass of a walker. Its throat had been torn out and hung in red shreds from the alpha goblin’s mouth. He managed to tear off an arm and crawled with it, spider-like, back into his pit.
As soon as his back was turned, his underlings broke into a savagery over what remained of the corpse. They charged and tore and scraped and howled in a gruesome shower of blood and flesh. The cave echoed with the gleeful and violent cacophony of the monsters.
When he reached his damp, reeking chamber, he yanked off a finger and began to suck on it. There had been little reason for killing the walker. He needed no reason, other than that it meant slightly less bothersome hunting for bland deer and scrawny rabbits. Human meat was so much more delectable, after all. And it was amusing to watch them try to defend themselves. The man had been so afraid, his legs had been visibly shaking from the moment of his entry into the caves. When it had become clear that he was going to die, he had tried to put up a fight. Gerdel’s swiftness, however, hadn’t allowed him time to summon any magic. For that was what he had been: a magician. A Mage, more precisely; an emissary from the Towers. As it turned out, the overlord of Esdrig, the ruler of the walkers, the Great Sage Kurmont, wished to meet with him.
As he emptied the finger of blood and threw it into his maw, Gerdel pondered the situation. This could be an interesting opportunity.