A Dreamer Among Ruins (Selected excerpts)


by Josh Parker

Chapter Fifteen: Gathering Darkness

Twilight’s Tower was a spire of night jutting into the sky. At its top, the red flame of tribute the the Collectors burned night and day, its dancing light reminding all citizens of Honesgaar who their true masters were. At its foot, the Darkshore Keep sprawled over ten miles in all directions; home to the ruling house of Engroth. At the moment, the western courtyard, called the Deathyard due to the executions performed there for the benefit of keeping the loyal public loyal, a host of five hundred Enforcers were gathered, currently being inspected by General Taraboor. They were the Honor Guard of High Mage Tiarsul.

The High Mage had not as yet arrived. Outwardly Taraboor was a picture of rigid strictness. Inwardly, he was as nervous as a trout in a net. Tiarsul had been known to do terrible things to those who displeased him. The general had chosen among his Enforcers carefully, so as not to send all of his best men away and leave the city weakened, but so that there would be enough good, stout men in the party to make Tiarsul feel that the best of the best was being sent with him. The mage did not even need one man for a true guard, and were this a mission of secrecy would not wish to have a single man with him; doubtless they would only slow him. However, in this case it was a very public visit to Tai-Ronnys, where apparently he was going to check on the progress of that fool Orrotho in finding Erik Rhondis.

Rhondis meant nothing to Taraboor. Making sure this Honor Guard for Tiarsul met with the mage’s approval was of the utmost imortance. He walked forward to the front of the ranks and surveyed the rows of soldiers. The were all over six feet; Tiarsul preferred his soldiers tall. Their armor was, in keeping with Emperor Ph’rothack’s House colors, lacquered black with red trim. Segmented plates, all deep black, rose up their torsos to join with giant black pauldrons with the red serpent-and-swords emblazoned upon them. A linen surcoat topped the segmenta, yet again featuring Ph’rothack’s sigil. They wore black, bell-shaped helms, lined with crimson lacquer, that joined with a gorget, leaving their faces covered entirely with the exception of large eye-holes. Ph’rothack did not wish for the vision of his soldiers to be impeded, but he also saw no reason to uncover too much of the face. Their armor was crafted of kurtrusite, an ore mined exclusively in the Black Caverns of Qua’poli, which was a far more dense metal than steel, iron or other material that Taraboor had seen armor constructed from.

The soldiers before him were battle-hardened, even those who had never seen war. They were taken from their families as children and thrust into service, being trained by Taskmasters in the arts of battle, even to the point of battling each other in the Pits of Defeasance. Those strong enough to survive three terms in the Pits were officially raised to recruit status. Those not strong enough were buried in mass graves out on the Helvygur Fields. These men before him now had survived ten hard years of brutal regimens, followed by eight nights in the Pits, before finally being declared Enforcers of the Engrothian regime. He understood that in other Lands, the soldiers of the conquered armies were allowed to be integrated into the local Enforcer squadrons without spending any time in the regiments or Pits. The thought made his teeth grind together and his eyes narrow.

The men he was surveying believed his sudden ire to be aimed at them and immediately began going through their forms, making sure, again, that they had overlooked nothing within their armor, arms or horses. They were each armed with longswords on their backs and spathas at their sides. A series of shortswords, daggers, mauls and maces were stored along their persons. Finally, each carried a ten foot black ironwood halberd, its black-lacquered blade a foot-long half-moon, again with the three swords carved into its sides. Their horses were black garrons rendered into monsters by black-lacquered bardings, their champrons wrought into the shapes of fanged, spike-lined serpent-faces. At first glance it would appear that the Enforcers of Engroth rode into battle upon the backs of small dragons.

Captain Hussorn marched up and saluted.

“The men are prepared, sir. We await departure at your order.” Hussorn was one of Taraboor’s proteges, a man who could handle nearly anything. He had assigned Hussorn to lead the Honor Guard because the Enthonian was the best leader the Guard could have, save he himself. At seven feet and two inches, he was the tallest soldier in the Guard. He was also rock hard. Nothing could move Hussorn, nor sway him from his orders. A man like Hussorn could have a tourney lance thrust through his heart and still keep living long enough to complete his duty.

“Not my order,” Taraboor responded. “From this moment forward you are under the direct command of High Mage Tiarsul. I don’t have to remind you what will happen should you prove a disappointment. There could not be a more important assignment for you unless you were attending the Emperor himself. I know you will not fail.”

“Never, sir,” the captain replied. His voice was steady. Only a slight look in his eyes betrayed what he was really thinking. Taraboor could not fault him; all of them were thinking the same thing. None of them enjoyed being in the presence of the grey mage for too long. Everything about him made Taraboor’s skin crawl; the cloak, the hands. That voice. It was like...hearing breath come out of the dead. The mage had a way of moving that was more like gliding. He moved like one not among the living. And sometimes when the mage was nearby, Taraboor could feel something in his head, almost like a groping hand.

Still in all, as long as he and his men wore Engroth’s colors, as long as they called themselves Enforcers, they would perform their sworn duties and would never flag. Even duties they would almost rather remove their fingers one by one with a fork in order to avoid.

“He’s coming,” Taraboor whispered. He had not intended for it to come out so low, nor so childlike. But over the sholder of the captain, far enough away that he was little more than a black smear, a figure emerged from the foot of Twilight’s Tower. He was alone. Tiarsul almost always walked alone around the grounds of Darkshore Keep; one could never be sure that the mage was not lurking around the next corner, and he often was. Many times it seemed that he was several places at once, but certainly magic like that was beyond even he.

“Serpent protect you,” Taraboor said, loudly. In a much smaller voice he added: “Hussorn Hawkborn.” That was dangerous, calling him by his tribal name where it could easily be overheard, but he knew that the captain needed to know that he was being sent on this mission by a friend, not just a senior officer. Hints of surprise, joy and relief flickered over the tall man’s features briefly before resuming his typical stone face.

Taraboor turned and walked in the direction of the Korsarrd Gate. He made sure that he did not walk faster than he needed to, but knowing who was behind him and was rapidly getting closer made that much harder.

*                                                                                                                                  *                                              *

The general was leaving before Tiarsul had arrived. He had, in fact, begun his egression almost to the moment that the mage had appeared from door to the Tower’s reception hall. The tall man, likely the man who would be leading his Honor Guard, was still there, standing mouth agape like a great jackfool, but Tiarsul let these tiresome thoughts fly. He was about his Masters’ business, and after all this time sitting idle, it was high time to be doing something! He flicked his gaze about, and the asps that rested in his skull measured the scene before him. The guard was five hundred men. Five hundred useless bags of meat. Sword-fodder. Should the need arise for defense, Tiarsul was far more prepared than any fifty of them. They looked so proud of themselves, arrayed in ten rows of fifty, beside their admittedly impressive-looking horses. The mage had to agree; those who saw him would have no doubt in their minds that he was not out for a late-autumn peregrination. In part, he regretted and even hated the fact that he needed such meagre trappings to communicate this message to the masses. They should be able to know such just by seeing him. But all in good time. The Masters had promised him godhood. All in good time.

“High Mage, I am Captain Hussorn of the Engroth Enforcer High Command,” greeted the tallest meat sack. Tiarsul bit back a retort. It would not do to insult these men; they needed to fear him, not hate him. Too much hate would eventually overtake their fear and then Tiarsul would have to exhaust some of his tricks snapping them back into place. Instead he smiled and chuckled inwardly as he watched the effect his unseen smile had on the men arrayed before him. It was said that you could not see Tiarsul’s face, but you knew when he was looking at you. That went double for when he smiled.

“Captain,” he returned. “Your men look ready to depart. Shall we begin?”

“At once, my lord,” the captain riposted. He turned and snapped his hand in a brisk motion. “Bra’cht tel Gudt!” he bellowed. The men seemed to all mount their steeds in unison. A page nervously led Aedannan to the mage and handed the reigns over before running off. Tiarsul mounted and the procession to the Honesfrud Gate.

As the high black stone gate, wrought with carvings of dragons devouring naked young girls reared into view, Tiarsul had to supress a growl of frustration. At the gate were twenty black-and-red figures with long crimson plumes jetting from their helms. Red spears jutted up from their mounts like a forest of flame. At their head was the man that Tiarsul wished to see least of all the beings on the Masters’ earth.

Ph’rothack was clothed the way he always was, at least outdoors. His short cape had been replaced by a long black cloak, the red piping, thick as an adder’s lithe body, slithering down the sides to form the large serpent face on one side and the Ψ on the other. His head was adorned with a dark half-helm, its top carved with three swords. He was not here to wish Tiarsul a safe journey. The mage knew why he was here replete with his entire Trisword Guard, and it did not bode well. There would be a scene.

“Emperor,” he hissed, trying, and failing, to sound pleasant. “Serpent protect you. I am sorry to have to leave you like this, but my duty prevents me from staying idle any longer. I am pleased that you understand and have graciously allowed me to depart from Honesgaar, even coming with the Triswords to bid me farewell.”

“I had thought we could talk in private, mage,” murmured the popinjay with a scowl. Just whom did this lizard think he was addressing?

“I am not sure what is left for us to discuss,” Tiarsul retorted. He could hear Ph’rothack’s teeth grinding from ten feet away. “Besides, the more talk we engage in, the later it will be until I can be on my way, and we neither one want that, do we?” He paused and let the last two words linger in the air. Surely the fool would understand that this was no time to become self-important.

“I am afraid that we still have quite a bit to talk about,” answered the emperor. “If you could please dismount and follow me to the gatehouse this shan’t take long.” He was becoming self important. A lesson in humility was sorely needed.

“This is not a request,” replied the stuffed little emperor. “My triswords will stay with your men while we have our conversation. The guard house should be private enough. Come.” With that, he turned his horse and trotted toward the gatehouse. Tiarsul had half a mind to simply let him go into the shack, thinking the mage had followed him like a dutiful puppy, but in reconsidering, changed his mind. It would mean having to slaughter all of the Triswords, which was more messy than he preferred, and at present it suited him better for Engroth to believe that Tiarsul was the tamed mage of the realm. Swallowing his pride, he motioned for Hussorn to keep the men at the gate, and followed Ph’rothack to the gatehouse.

He left his horse with one of the guards and entered the dusty, dimly lit gatehouse. The emperor was pacing discomfittedly within. Tiarsul could watch him silently fume all day, but he knew that this charade could go on forever if he allowed it, and he needed to be underway.

“What is it that is so important that you would meet me at the gate yourself, emperor?” asked Tiarsul through gritted teeth.

“When were you going to ask for my permission?” asked Ph’rothack lowly. “I had to find out about your intent to leave from Chancellor Ingruk, and even he heard it third-hand. I find it somewhat irregular, that you did not come supplicant before the throne of the Seven Lands beseeching the approval of your liege Lord to go cross-country, robbing your ruler of magical support entirely, for no other reason than this Rhondis!”

“Surely you understand the import of my quest,” hissed Tiarsul. All the while that he had been explaining what the young man Rhondis had and why it was needed; it was as if the man had not been paying attention at all! “This time a shadow spell cannot be enough. I must be there in person. This is no time for you to become graspy. Remember that my aide was offered freely to your realm; I am no slave of Engroth, nor do I submit to your mortal authority. I act as your High Mage because the Masters wish it and as long as I am Their humble servant upon this mortal plain, I shall always do as They command. Now, I am going to go back out of this hut and mount my horse. You are going to order your Triswords to stand down and I am going to Rothes-Kel. Good day, emperor.”

He turned on his heel and started toward the door, stopping at the desperation in Ph’rothack’s next words.

“I have so much in motion. I need you here!”

Tiarsul could not help but turn back and revel just for a moment in seeing the mighty emperor of all the Seven Lands groveling in despondancy before his true master.

“What you need is the seventh Scion,” he growled, not letting the pleasure of the sight touch his voice. “Rhondis has it, and without it all your plans that you state are in motion mean naught. And you know it.”

“What I do not know is that this young farmhand really has what we need,” replied Ph’rothack. “I know that is what you believe.”

“It is more than a belief, Ph’rothack,” Tiarsul simpered. “I know it for true. I searched his dreams and I touched him. He has it on him, but he does not yet know it. I will have it off him if I have to grind the answer out of his guts with my bare hands. And then, my dear emperor, your power will be secured for all time. For. All. Time. Think on that, while I am gone. And trust in the will of the Masters. They know all and see all.”

With that, he turned and opened the door to the gatehouse. He ripped the reigns of his mount from the terrified guard and drew himself up into the saddle, trotting the destrier back toward his Honor Guard.

If he had turned back just before closing the door to the gatehouse, he would have seen a broad grin cross the features of Emperor Ph’rothack. It was the kind of smile a hunter gives as he watches a rabbit walk blissfully into his trap.

*                                                                                                                                  *                                              *

The High Mage had exited the gatehouse and had re-mounted. Hussorn felt his skin prickle again but forced the feeling down.

“Look lively, men,” he intoned. “It appears we are to march after all.”

The Trisword commander gave Hussorn a hard stare and did not move. A moment passed and Tiarsul came closer. After what seemed an hour the Emperor emerged, looking angry but not impeding the mage’s progress to his honor guard. He signalled with his left hand and the Triswords began to disperse, trotting their horses to assemble behind the Emperor’s horse. Hussorn felt uneasy in his heart over the entire ordeal. Ph’rothack was the man on the Seat of the Serpent, the Throne of the Seven Lands, not the High Mage.

Tiarsul had reached the guard. Hussorn made himself ready and heard the men behind him doing the same.

“Your men are ready to depart?” asked the mage in his cold voice.

“Upon your order, High Mage,” replied Hussorn.

“Then let us be on our way,” the mage spoke. Hussorn signalled with his hand and the men atop the walls began cranking on large winches. The sound of chains being drawn rattled down to the honor guard, sounding to Captain Hussorn like the chains on slaves, binding he and his men to their cold servitude of the demonic realm of Tiarsul. The giant gates swung open slowly, until finally there was room for ten horses to walk abreast, and Hussorn signalled for the men to ride forth. They passed through the gates and into the grey surrounding hillside, the outbuildings of Darkshore Keep flanking both sides of the road. The dark buildings stood silently, dark coming from their few windows. Hussorn knew that they were not abandoned, as any unfortunate traveller who decided to enter them would soon discover. He tried not to look at them, but he found his eyes travelling left and right of their own accord. Did he hear whispering coming from those buildings? It could not be; it was the wind passing through those buildings, nothing more. But then, knowing as he did what sort of things lay in the inky darkness within the outbuildings, perhaps he was wrong.

Der fulergang al’throk...wi nama kla al’throk...throk duren mal ka...

He shut his ears and marched his horse resolutely forward. He forced his thoughts to their ahead journey. A question arose in his mind; one that he had never recieved a proper answer for. General Taraboor had not known the answer, and the messengers that had come and gone telling him when and where to assemble his men and what to have prepared had not told him why this was the case. The thought of asking Tiarsul himself made his skin crawl, but the question had to be answered and it had to be answered before they travelled too far out of the city. He moved his horse closer to the mage’s and cleared his throat.

“We only have enough provisions for six days,” he said to Tiarsul. “The trip to Tai-Ronnys will take a good month and a half. Do you intend for us to reload somewhere nearer?”

The mage chuckled, a sound that nearly froze Hussorn’s blood. The black hood turned in the captain’s direction. Hussorn did his best to keep looking at Tiarsul’s cowl; the blackness within showed a flash of grey, but the captain could not credit what he saw within. The mage was silent now, but still looking at Hussorn.

“I had forgotten how little you know of the ways of a mage,” snickered Tiarsul. “We will be taking a small shortcut. We will pass out of the lands of light and weakness and plunge ourselves into the heart of the Masters’ creation. It will be a dangerous journey, but only if you do not heed my instruction. The path we take is not one that appreciates the tread of mortal foot. It is of utmost importance that you follow my lead. Spread the word to your men.”

Hussorn motioned briskly and Lieutenant Malanak road forward. The captain passed on the message, stressing the importance of every word. After the lieutenant left, Hussorn turned to the mage with a heavy glare.

“Why wasn’t this mentioned to me before we departed?” he asked measuredly. He was treading on dangerous ground already, it seemed, but he would have answers of this inhuman thing or he would not lead his men another step. “Do you not think that potential danger of any sort, magical or otherwise, should be shared with me so that I might properly prepare my men?”

“You expect a mage to operate as a mere man would,” the mage replied, a tone of mirth in his voice. “This is arrogant presumption. I would not hear it from you again.” He turned his head to the captain again. “Do you really believe that you could have found five hundred good men who would be able to embark on this journey, knowing what they would face, and not let fear overtake them before they even left the gate? It would not do to have them all in a panic miles before we even arrive there.” A cold, hissing chuckle escaped his mouth.

Hussorn’s eyes narrowed. His mind was singing with alarm.

“Where is this...passage?” he asked.

“We do not have much farther to go,” answered Tiarsul calmly. “Perhaps another ten leagues. We should reach it before sundown. But we shall not stop merely because it will be near dark. It shall be dark enough inside the passage.”

“What is this passage called?” asked Hussorn. The sound from the mage sounded like the first trickle of stones before a rockslide.

“It is called Pyram’s Gap,” answered the mage. “I see you have heard of it.”

All the blood had drained from the captain’s face. He jerked his head up and stared at the mage.

“You are mad,” he whispered.

“So I am told,” Tiarsul whispered back. “Do not believe the stories that no one has ever returned from the Gap. It is possible. If you know what you are doing.”

“I will not lead my men there,” Hussorn insisted. “It is death to enter. You may be able to traverse such a place but you are not a man. I will not enter!”

Tiarsul let the tirade go until Hussorn was finished. Almost immediately the captain regretted his words. Of course he would enter; he had to. His general had commanded Hussorn to obey Tiarsul as he would obey him. As an Enforcer, Hussorn would do his duty. More importantly, however, speaking so to a mage such as the one beside him was a fine way to end your life, or spend the rest of it in the body of a cave fish. He sucked in sharply and waited to see what Tiarsul would do.

He waited for a long time. The mage said nothing, but kept marching his horse forward. After a few yards, he finally lifted his head again.

“I could not help but notice that you have not left,” he said, amusement still coloring his voice. “I have made no attempt to stop you. I can only assume that you wish to follow me. Beyond those hills...” He pointed that ghastly left hand to the rolling hills lying due west. “...lies the Gap. That is our road. Should you remain upon it, the Gap you will travel, and face whatever lies there. The choice is yours, Captain Hussorn Hawkborn.”

Hussorn did not know how the High Mage knew his tribal name, and did not ask. He cantered his horse ahead and rode in silence for a while as the afternoon began to wane and the shadows began to lengthen. His thoughts turned to the past. In his fifty years, much had changed. When he was a young man, nothing could have dampened his enthusiasm to join the military and defend his homeland, his king and his family’s honor. His father, the legendary commander Mauric Windchild, had beamed with pride the day he had been taken before the Council of Air and Sky and had his name bestowed upon him and had wept with pure joy the day that his son had won his first tournament; the first of many. There was no sword in Enthonia like Hussorn Hawkborn’s, went the legend before him.

The war against Engroth had gone poorly for Enthonia overall. It had begun shortly after the ascent of Prince Droganik Brightsword, who had offered little to no resistance against the hordes of Enforcers, mages and dark beings. Those who resisted were killed mercilessly. By that time Mauric Windchild had died, but Hussorn Hawkborn fought hard in his father’s stead, certainly doing the old man proud by the almost poetic way he moved his sword. When it was over, most of his comrades had fallen. He was imprisoned in the black gulag Tunuana, living on dry bread crusts, scummy water and whatever unfortunate rats managed to scurry their way into his grasp. After six days, gaunt, weary and so, so hungry, he had been taken from his cell and thrust into a pit containing eight men besides himself. A sword was thrust into his hands, and the others had begun killing each other. It only took the trained warrior a fraction of a second to realize what was going on here. This was more war, only now the only goal was survival. There were only two ways to ensure that he would ever get out of this pit; if he was carried out limp and lifeless, or if he was the only living thing still left in it. There was no choice for a born warrior like Hussorn. The sword became a living thing in his hand. None touched him, and all fell before him. His blade sang with the blood of his enemies over and over again until he stood, bedraggled and near to fainting, holding his sword aloft, dripping red with spilt life.

They took him out of the pit and gave him food. Not the meagre leavings of a meal as he had been fed in the cell but a full meal of his own; potted finches, cutlets of dace, rice pudding, bread so sweet he could nearly weep. He washed it down with red wine, his goblet refilled every time it went dry. He vaguely began to wonder if they were not feeding him a last meal before an execution, but after four or five cups of wine, that thought went away.

As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. He had done what only five other fellow Enthonians had done; he had survived the Pits of Defeasance. He was to be inducted into the Enforcers. And he had gone along. It had never occurred to him to resist. He had no thoughts of escape or evasion. He never shirked his duty, never blanched from it even when it required him to commit deplorable acts like beheading a poor old widow woman who would not let her last child, a boy of seven, be taken from her to be placed in the Pits. He let his duty become his reason for existing, and before long he forgot that he had ever been a different sort of warrior; the kind who fought for outdated concepts like honor and family. He had become a soldier of the Engrothian Empire, a devoted subject of Emperor Ph’rothack. And that was how he would die; his name besmirching the house of Air and Sky, his tribal name of Hawkborn tainted by the blood of a thousand innocents who had died by his sword for the terrible crime of living when the Seat of the Serpent had decided they should not.

His father, were Mauric Windchild still alive today, would spit in his son’s face if he could see what he had become. It would be a repayment, less than he deserved, for the way that he had spit upon his father’s memory and his family’s name.

They reached the hills at near dusk, the sun red behind them. The sky was bathed in an evil red glow that Hussorn had simply become accustomed to. It was a mark of scorcery covering the land; it would remain as long as men like Tiarsul remained in power.

The man had it figured correctly, if man he can be called, thought the captain. Tiarsul had somehow known that he would do his duty, whatever his personal objections. The hills spread before him, their gradual upsweep mirroring the rise of the gorge in his throat. On their other side, he would have to fully make his choice, and live with the consquences.

If he followed orders and entered the Gap with Tiarsul, what would happen? Tiarsul assured him that he and his men could come through to the other side unscathed, but how closely did he trust the word of the mage? But then, Tiarsul had nothing to gain by senselessly slaughtering five hundred men who were only following him out of devotion to their duty. Surely he would not lead them all to their deaths if he was not sure.

But Hussorn had to account for the very real possibility that Tiarsul was simply mad. It was not an unreasonable possibility. Had the mage ever traversed Pyram’s Gap before? Did he know with all assurances that it could be successfully travelled? Or did his faith simply cause him to believe that he could do anything?

On the chance that he had, and that he really did have an understanding of how one could pass through with impunity, should Hussorn refuse to follow him, he would be in violation of direct orders from his general, which came from the Emperor himself. The punishment for that was death. And even if Tiarsul did not kill him where he stood–and the mage had offered no assurance that he would not–there was still the shame of having to admit to his general that he had defied his superiors. Even if death did not result, the shame would be too great a burden to bear.

He once again let his horse fall back until he rode side by side with the high mage once more. The dark cowl took no notice of him. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, the captain spoke.

“When was the last time you travelled Pyram’s Gap, high mage?” he asked.

Tiarsul again laughed his bone-chilling laugh.

“In other words, Captain,” he said around his laughter. “‘Do I know for certain that a mortal man can traverse the Gap and survive?’ I understand the underlying question here, sir. You think me mad! I can see how your average person might believe so. Apparently you think me capable of leading five hundred men to certain death for no crime greater than following me as an honor guard. Well, Captain Hussorn, let me put your concerns to rest. This will be the fifth time I have deigned to cross Pyram’s Gap, and I can assure you that your men will be as safe in there as I.”

It was a less-than-reassuring statement, but what followed would have made Hussorn’s hair stand on end had he any hair left.

“This is the first time that I have taken others with me.”

At the top of the last rise, Hussorn looked down into the dark valley, and upon what he was now certain was his doom. And it was a doom that he was going to, willingly. His mind was made up. Given a choice between duty and death, or shame and death, he had chosen duty.

The Gap looked at first like an ordinary ravine that one might see anywhere in the plains. But when he looked at it long enough, he could see that the gathering clouds seemed heavier over the fissure that was Pyram’s Gap. It meandered through the valley floor seemingly aimlessly, but there was a sinister quality that caused Hussorn to take a second and third look, as though his eyes could not credit what they saw. The air and countryside around it...shimmered...almost as if the sun was baking down upon it. But there was no sun, and the sky over the Gap was particularly dark.

The High Mage pointed southwest, down the path their winding road took.

“The gate is at the foot of this path,” he said. “Instruct your men to stay on the path and not to stray from it for any reason. It is possible to enter the Gap through alternate routes, if you have any wish to be eviscerated, flayed, seared, disembowelled or quartered.”

Without hesitation, Hussorn relayed the message to Malanak. He decided prudence lay in following the mage’s every command, no matter how outside of reality it seemed. The otherworldly nature of the Gap promised only death to all who ignored the mage’s advise. Of course, there was no guarantee that following Tiarsul’s advice would have any different, or better, results, but when faced with two choices, one unthinkable and the other evil, the unthinkable one suddenly became thinkable.

The path wound down to a narrow, straight and high-walled roadway that looked in no way natural to Hussorn. The sense of forboding grew even more. Looking ahead, he saw that the distorted look of the sky above the Gap lay directly ahead. Any thoughts he might still be entertaining of turning back were entirely out of the question now. The time had come to take the plunge and follow mad, evil old Tiarsul into the jaws of death.

Ahead, dust and loose stone began to fall from the top of the wall onto the valley floor. Hussorn jerked his head skyward to the top of the wall where the slide seemed to have begun.

He saw there the figure of a man on horseback.

Before he could react, the figure lifted his hand in greeting and shouted down.

“Hail, High Mage Tiarsul! Hail, Captain Hussorn! Are you enjoying your long journey?”

Hussorn scowled and murmured in his throat. It was Jukar. He should have anticipated this. While perhaps the best spearman in the company, Jukar sorely lacked in discipline and had often questioned the orders of his superiors when he found them not to his liking. After his last punishment, Hussorn had believed, mistakenly, apparently, that all the rebelliousness had gone out of Jukar. But the Vergalian had always been a contrary spirit, and apparently all attempts to break that spirit had been fruitless.

“Enforcer Jukar,” he spoke, pitching his voice so that the wall carried the sound straight up. “You were, and still are, under orders from your captain to not stray from this path. You will ride back toward the road and follow us. We shall wait at the gate for you. However, this dalliance of yours will cost us all time, and for that fifty lashes shall be administered to you tonight by myself. If you continue on your present course, you may find yourself wishing that a lashing was all you recieved.”

“Captain, listen to me,” answered Jukar, a laugh in his voice. “The mage has decieved you! There is a clear, easily navigated path just a few yards from where I sit my horse! It will not take long for you to turn around and follow me. It will shave at least four hours off this fool’s errand!”

“Enforcer!” bellowed Hussorn. “You are now in violation of five codes of conduct for a soldier of the Engrothian Empire. You have disobeyed a direct order twice, you have made disparaging remarks on the High Mage of the Realm, you have forsaken your mission and your behavior displays conduct unbefitting an Enforcer of Engroth. I command you to desist in your rebellion and follow the path to the gate.” He paused, waiting to see if his words had touched the young Vergalian at all. They had not. Jukar wheeled his horse around and rode back in the direction he had pointed. He was determined to prove himself right, as always.

“I shall see you inside the Gap!” he hollared over his left shoulder. “And then you shall perhaps reconsider your words to me, Captain.” The fleeting figure on horseback flickered out of sight, back on his foolish quest for some small glory.

There was silence following his departure, but for the humming in Hussorn’s ears. The men all sat rigidly atop their mounts, awaiting further orders. Minutes passed, or what could have been hours. Hussorn’s measure of time was blotted out by his rage. That one of his own men could disgrace him so! And in front of the High Mage! This was doubtlessly going to be reported to Taraboor, and by the time Hussorn had returned to Honesgaar, assuming he ever did, he would be fortunate to be assigned night guard duty.

“Captain?” It was Malanak who spoke. “Orders, sir?”

Hussorn gave it a few more minutes, silencing the lieutenant with a glare. Tiarsul turned his mount so that the front of his cowl, the part that hid that hideous visage, was facing the captain.

“Ride on,” spoke the cold voice.

“I leave no man behind,” Hussorn informed him, just as cold.

“Except for the dead ones,” the mage replied. “Your Enforcer Jukar is dead. He just does not yet realize it.”

Hussorn narrowed his eyes, allowing himself to transfer his anger to the mage. Inwardly he seethed even harder. He focused on a narrow dot on the mage’s dark cloak, a single jot of black amid the inky sea. He fed his anger into it, and finally allowed himself to admit that the mage was right. Whether or not Jukar died, he would face justice. He turned back to the guard.

“We ride,” he shouted.

The company filed silently down the narrowing road, the sound of hooves against the dirt floor echoing like drumbeats in Hussorn’s head. A soft sound was coming from within Tiarsul’s cowl. If Hussorn did not know better, he would swear the mage was laughing. And then a sound rose like a warning trump of the Apocalypse.

Hussorn had not realized that it was possible for a man to make a sound like that. But then, he had never heard the sound of a man being quartered.

After that the silence seemed to be a physical presence among the guard. No one spoke or even moved unnecessarily. Five hundred men, four hundred and ninty-nine now, stared straight ahead, avoiding all but the path directly in front of them. Tiarsul also did not speak, but the mage was rarely a conversationalist. Hussorn tried not to think about the brave, skilled, deadly and ultimately stupid man who had been Jukar. He wondered what sort of being had taken him. Tiarsul would not speak about what was in the Gap, and Hussorn’s imagination was conjuring up a beast that was all arms and teeth that moved like a mass of writhing snakes. Somehow he knew that whatever Jukar’s bane had been, the imaginary creature was not doing it justice.

After a time the path curved to the right. As though it were a snake, the company began to turn right as one. A hawk high above them, watching the lines of men turning, might believe them to be a snake of great size, so together and fluid was their turn. And a sight that would appear in Hussorn’s dreams every night until his death lay straight ahead.

Before them loomed the gaping jaws of a monsterous dragon. Its black maw was ringed by razor-like teeth, each as long as a pike. Black eyes glittered in the low light and three rows of horns like dark, atramentous spires jutted into the sky from the top of its skull.

The bile of fear crept up the back of Hussorn’s throat, and he had to choke it back down, resisting the urge to whip his sword from its scabbard. His eyes had registered the sight before his mind had caught up with them. The beast was long dead, its head preserved in a way that spoke of dark sorcery.

Tiarsul rode ahead and veered his horse round to face the company.

“Before you lies the head of Luurgürz, the Black Worm of Challigåk,” he spoke, his voice somehow reaching the ear of all the men, despite not raising it in the slightest. “This is where he was slain by the great Pyram Dubai. The great worm’s body fell from the sky, rending a great tear in the world, and thus was the Gap created. Pyram was a powerful man, and he declared the Gap holy. None shall enter with impunity unless it be by the throat of the worm Luugurz. The body was incinerated by the great mage’s flames, but the head was left for eternity, as a reminder that the power of the old mages is greater than the greatest beast of Hell.

“Earlier, one of your company went his own way into the Gap. And there are many such primrose paths along the walls of the gap. Take even one, and you will die most unpleasantly. The path that leads through the dragon’s teeth, into its jaws, through its throat...that is the only path of safety. This is the reason that all believe that death is inevitable should one enter the Gap. Most believe that it is ill luck to walk through the mouth of even a dead dragon, and therefore avoid the only true path. It is one of the great mage’s greatest defences. Many of you also believe in the poor luck of the dragon’s mouth. Remember that you are soldiers of Engroth, and fear is not a fruit you eat of. Yonder is our goal. Ride behind me, do as I do, and in three days we shall be in western Belendem, and three days ride to Rothes-Kel. Time moves differently inside the Gap. Away from the path it moves erratically. That also makes it doubly important that you do not tarry needlessly anywhere within, lest you find that once you leave, you are an old man while all those you know have remained the same age, or perhaps it will be they who age. There will be various traps throughout. They will attempt to make you stray from the path and be ensnared forever in their treacherous spells. Do not allow that. Follow my lead to the step. And should any of you decide not to heed my warning, one need only remember the late Enforcer Jukar.”

The utter silence among the men gave way to worried murmuring, but the grim resolution on the faces of the men assured Hussorn that none were considering cutting and running. Malanak rode forward and spoke.

“Sir,” he said, addressing Tiarsul. “What assurances do we have that can get through the dragon’s teeth? They are spaced so that there is no open ground between them. By all appearances, we shall be shredded to ribbons.”

The dry laugh came again from the mage.

“The teeth will part if you choose the right path,” he answered. “Again, stay on course with me. Your lives depend on it.”

And with that, he turned and began trotting his horse toward the giant teeth. Hussorn spurred his mount after the mage, all the while remembering the poem he had learned as a child, about a mouse who was promised by a rat safe passage through a tunnel. The tunnel had turned out to be a snake’s belly.

He walked and walked

He thought, quite safe

Upon the path ‘twas beaten

And when at last

He reached the place

He found that he’d been eaten.

They were now within ten yards of the cavernous mouth. He could see the teeth almost as if the beast was leaning down to him, considering him as a possible meal. He began to whisper prayers in his mind.

Great Serpent Ürgirix protect me...He stopped. It did not seem fitting to beseech the Serpent to keep him from the mouth of another serpent. He had been taught to pray to the heathen god as part of his Enforcer training, but now an old name came to mind, a deity he had not even thought of, more shame to him, in years. It was Addyr whose help he should seek now. He took a deep breath and began his prayer anew.

Addyr, Lord of the Sky and all things that make their home within it, hear my cry. I acknowledge my apostasy, and beg your mercy. I enter now into an unknown fate. I beseech thy wing upon me, so that I may renew my flight with thee. O loving Addyr, keep me close to thy breast and take your humble fledgling into thy sky at the end of my walk.

It still astounded him how that prayer, that blasphemy according to the laws that governed him, that true spirit which still lived within him, could help him to feel safer about the approaching maw. He looked ahead, and true to the mage’s word, the teeth had parted. A space had appeared a little to the right of the center, and it was that hole that the mage was making for. No turning back now, he thought to himself. He really had committed himself to do what he always did; his duty.

He felt rather than saw the hanging upper teeth pass over his head, felt the ground shift as the horse’s hooves went from walking on solid earth to petrified tongue.

And so Hussorn Hawkborn of Air and Sky followed the unholy mage into that most unholy of all unholies, and littered the heathen air around him with his prayers.