The small coffin swayed gently as it descended into the grave. The earth is swallowing him up, thought Tyne Fedron. The grave looked like a raw, open wound, a physical reminder of the pain he felt in his soul at the loss of his youngest brother.
Tremmel’s grave was next to his brother Rukee’s, who had died less than a year earlier. Anger and outrage roiled through Tyne’s guts as he thought about Tremmel’s death at the hands of the thing that had risen from the Bronze Demon Hills. Tyne himself had not seen the demon, but Tremmel had witnessed the crimson lightning that had opened a hole in the ground, out of which the demon had come. Tremmel had fled at the sight of it, frightened out of his mind, but for some reason Rukee had stayed. And died for it. When they found him, there was no wound upon his body, no obvious reason for him to be dead. But dead he was, cold and stiff, his eyes open and staring.
It had taken a long time to get the full story from Tremmel. The youngest of the Fedron boys was so frightened he could not speak; when he finally found his voice a day later, all that emerged was a terrible keening sound mixed with Rukee’s name.
Tyne had gone in search of Rukee before Tremmel had recovered. He found his brother’s body just off the road that led past the Bronze Demon Hills, near old man Hilagren’s farm. Tyne had dimly taken note of the smoldering hole in the side of one of the hills, but in his grief he gave it no more thought. With the help of his friends Marchus and Draen, who had accompanied him on his search, he brought Rukee’s body back to their mother.
Loesta Fedron had lost a husband four years past, but had managed to keep the family farm going with the help of her sons and a gift of gold coins from her brother Brulchee, a merchant who dealt in furs throughout Formale. After her husband’s drowning death in the Uron River, Loesta refused a number of suitors who pursued her hand. She confided to her oldest son Tyne that they wanted either her land, a woman for their beds, or both, and she would be damned if she would spit on her husband’s memory by giving such weak men what they wanted. “We are Helcareans,” she would tell him. “The blood of Helca flows in our veins. We’re descended from mighty warriors of old, men who placed their boot heels on every kingdom in Osseria and forged an empire from the struggling, kicking lot of them. Never forget that. We are a strong people, the strongest in the world. We can’t act weak. We can’t be weak. That’s why the empire fell. Because weak men with no vision, no purpose, came to rule it. Mark my words, Tyne, the empire will rise again one day, but only if we are strong enough to show we are worthy of it.”
When Tremmel recovered enough to tell them what had happened to Rukee, Tyne immediately led a group of men from the nearby homesteads and the town of Konfatine to the Bronze Demon Hills. The hole in the hillside was still there, mocking him. He’d marched to it without hesitation while the others faltered, fearing the hills and the legends surrounding them. Weak men, he realized. Weak and unworthy of their heritage, their birthright.
His own display of courage — he reached the hole alone, carrying only a long hunting knife — shamed the other men into following. When they reached him, they spread out around the yawning pit, a shaft into the hill so deep its bottom was swallowed in inky blackness. Twilight was settling over the land, and none of them wanted to be there when night came.
“Marchus, light a torch,” he said. He dropped the flaming brand into the opening. It fell twenty feet through charred dirt, rock, and clay before coming to rest on the stone floor of a tunnel.
“Gods preserve us,” muttered Draen. “What is that down there?”
“We’re going to find out,” said Tyne. “Give me some rope.”
“You’re not going…” Marchus could not finish. In that moment, Tyne despised his friend for his cowardice.
“Of course I am,” said Tyne. “Whatever killed Rukee came from there. And now it’s up here, with us. Maybe there’s something down there that can tell us what it is or how to kill it. Someone stays up here to keep watch and help with the rope. The rest are coming with me.” His tone made it clear there would be no discussion or debate.
He expected half of them to turn and run home like whipped dogs, but to his surprise they obeyed him. Even Marchus. The youngest of them, a wide-eyed boy of thirteen named Iskarea, remained above ground.
After securing a rope to the black, twisted trunk of a nearby tree, they followed Tyne into the pit.
* * *
Later, Tyne could recall little of what they found underground, as if something in the very air prevented him from retaining what he saw. The others suffered from a similar lack of memory. What remained were impressions punctuated with vivid images, some of which made little sense to them. Tyne’s memory of that time was very much like a dream.
He remembered long tunnels that twisted throughout the hills like a labyrinth, broken at regular intervals by stairs that led deeper and deeper into the earth. Smaller tunnels branched off into a blackness so deep, so impenetrable, that even he dared not enter them. The very air in those passages seemed to emanate threat and danger; his blood ran cold just to stand at the entrance to them, and he felt that if he were to take but a few more steps forward his heart would burst within his ribs. The torch he thrust into the first such passage they reached guttered and nearly failed before he withdrew it, as if some invisible presence were hungry for its light and heat.
He remembered strange glyphs and symbols carved upon the walls, though he could not recall any details of them. The impression they left upon his was one of wrongness, of things carved by inhuman hands for purposes dark and unknowable.
One of his clearer memories was of Marchus rubbing his temple and muttering, “There’s something trying to get into my head.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Draen.
“Whispers…something talking to me…” Marchus sounded almost drunk, and he was unsteady on his feet.
“Shut up,” said Kargin, the iron-smith from Konfatine. “I don’t hear nothin’.”
Tyne worried that in this haunted place something unsavory was indeed happening to Marchus. “Can you understand what the whispers are saying?”
“Shut up!” shouted Kargin. “There ain’t no bloody whispers!”
Marchus shook his head and mumbled something Tyne did not understand. He was about to ask him to repeat himself when they turned a corner and came across massive double doors fashioned from black stone, each at least a foot thick. The doors had been thrown open from within, but Tyne could see nothing of whatever lay beyond them.
He drew a breath and crossed the threshold.
Inside he found a round room whose walls were covered with more of the strange symbols. He sensed a kind of energy radiating from them, that the alien words or ideas they conveyed were drenched with power.
His torchlight fell upon a massive slab in the center of the room. A stone table a dozen feet long and half that in width, with the impression of a massive body on it, an area darkened relative to the rest of the stone.
He trembled with fury as he stared at the resting place of the demon that had killed his brother. Why had it awakened? Why now?
“This is not a place made by men,” whispered Draen. “It’s cursed, damned. We should leave before — ”
Marchus let out a wordless howl of pain and doubled over, clutching his head. His scream was almost painfully loud in the closed space. “Make them stop, make them stop!”
He shrieked and raised his head. Tyne gasped. Marchus’s eyes were bleeding. No mere trickles of blood, but thick runnels as if his eyes had been skewered.
Marchus began to thrash, and Tyne saw that his ears were bleeding as well. In the flickering torchlight it was a ghastly, nightmarish scene.
Marchus shifted his knife in his hand. Tyne had a sudden premonition of what was about to happen. “Hold him down!” he shouted.
But it was too late. Marchus drove the knife into his ear with incredible force. It penetrated his skull nearly to the hilt; the tip punched out the other side of his face in a hot spray of blood.
Draen and several others screamed in horror. Tyne rushed forward and caught Marchus’s convulsing body before he struck the floor. Tyne heard himself calling Marchus’s name over and over, but his voice sounded distant, dreamlike, the flimsy wail of a ghost.
He remembered nothing of their journey out of the tunnels beneath the hills. His next recollection was climbing from the pit, covered in Marchus’s blood, burning with a desire to kill the thing that had murdered his brother and now his friend. The desire was so strong, so deep, he wondered if he would ever feel anything else again.
* * *
And now he was burying his youngest brother next to Rukee, not far from Marchus’s grave. He wondered how the gods could be so cruel. Tremmel had survived his encounter with the demon, only to be struck down by blood fever. He lingered for two unbearable weeks, his small body wracked with convulsions that grew so violent he broke his arms and several ribs with his thrashings. The membranes along his gums, fingernails, and rectum had all turned black, thinned, then bled. Toward the end, the amount of blood was so great they could not clean it away fast enough. They could only try to hold him down while he convulsed and screamed, lying in a stinking pool of his own dark blood and waste.
Losing yet another son, and in such a terrible way, was too much for even Loesta Fedron to bear. Something inside her broke when Tremmel drew his last breath. She’d hardly spoken since. She shuffled around their house like an undead creature of legend, as if the very things that made her human had been extinguished like a snuffed candle, leaving an empty husk that continued to act alive through inertia alone.
The small coffin reached the bottom of the grave and settled into its place of eternal rest. Tyne stood next to his mother with his arm around her shoulders. He held her tightly; without his support, he feared she would slump to the ground. She made soft whimpering noises as she stared at the coffin. Tyne did not think she was aware of what she was doing, or anyone around her.
“Tremmel, oh my Tremmel…” His mother barely moved her lips to speak, and it took Tyne a moment to understand what she was saying.
A week passed. It was strangely quiet without Tremmel’s constant screams and shrieks. Tyne dreamed of the Bronze Demon Hills and the nightmare tunnels they found beneath them. He woke often after dreaming of Marchus driving his knife into his ear, or seeing some vast dark shape lying upon the stone table in the darkness, about to stir to life.
“Mama, I’m leaving,” he announced one morning. Loesta Fedron was standing outside their thatch-roofed house, staring blankly into this distance. He did not know how long she’d been there. He found her in odd places more and more, standing still as a scarecrow or slumped against a wall or post, her head down as if she’d fallen asleep on her feet.
She did not look at him. He moved so that he was directly in front of her, but he could see that she was not really aware of his presence. Her eyes stared through him at something he could not see. A part of his heart broke then as he thought about all he had lost; but another part hardened, driven by overwhelming anger and rage at what had happened to his family.
“I’m going to go find the thing that killed Rukee and I’m going to kill it,” he said. “I know we went looking after he died, but it was long gone, and we didn’t go far enough. That won’t stop me now. I’ll go as far as I have to.” He took her hands. They were cold, rigid, as if carved from stone. She did not return his grip.
“You’re going to be alone for a while, Mama. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Draen and Pennel will look in on you. But you need to start taking care of yourself again.” He squeezed her hands more tightly. “I miss them too. But we still have to live.”
* * *
The only weapons he carried were his bow and hunting knife. He would have preferred a sword or crossbow, but the Fedron family had no such weapons and he didn’t have the money to buy them, so that was that. The demon that killed Rukee was enormous, based on Tremmel’s description and the slab they found in the tunnels. He would need a better weapon at some point, but for now these would do.
Draen and Pennel knew he was leaving and had tried to talk him out of it, but once he made up his mind there was no changing it. He did not say goodbye to anyone except his mother. He had no desire to have them try one last time to convince him to stay. This was something that needed to be done. The thing that killed his brother was going to pay.
Tremmel had looked back and watched the demon strike down Rukee. He said it had walked southward before disappearing. That was all he had to go on. It was not much, but it would suffice.
Tyne set off south.
He kept to well-traveled paths and roads. He needed information, and the only way to get it was to ask others what they knew. He could not find what he was seeking if he kept away from people.
He reached the Moriteri Pike when he was a day’s walk from the capital. The road was crowded compared to what he’d traveled so far. He stopped at inns when he found them to ask if anyone had seen the demon. He spent nothing if he could get away with it; if the barkeep or patron wanted coin for their answer, or if they pressed him to buy a drink or meal, he weighed heavily whether to pay from his meager sack of silver and bronze coins. Most of the time he did not.
One night, he paid two copper pennies to a barkeep who whispered that he had seen an apparition himself some months ago; for his trouble, Tyne got an outlandish tale that so enraged him he walked out before he lost control and drove his knife through the fat bastard’s eye.
He asked anyone he passed on the road if they had heard about the demon stalking the world. A few had heard rumors and tales of a gold-skinned monstrosity, but could offer no details of what had happened or where the encounters had occurred. There were enough details, though, to convince him he was at least headed in the right direction.
A guard at the gates of Moriteri had no news of a demonic creature; instead, the man prattled on about the sorcerer who had recently joined the King’s Court, a man who had come seemingly from nowhere and who was now the king’s most trusted advisor. “Strange goings on,” said the guard with a shake of his head. “Strange enough without no demon causin’ trouble.”
Tyne cared nothing for the king or his sorcerer. Rullio was a weak ruler, as were all the kings and queens who had come before him since the time of the empire’s collapse. Strong rulers would reclaim what the empire had lost. Rullio and his ilk had no pride, no love of their kingdom and its rich history. Helcarea needed a ruler with the strength of will to demand that his people become what they once were: the greatest in the world. And to winnow out those who would not follow.
But that would not happen while Rullio sat upon the throne. From what he had heard, the king cared for his concubines and horses more than ruling the kingdom and trying to rekindle its past glory. It shamed Tyne to have such a worthless man as his king.
Tyne did not enter the city. He felt that if something so monstrous and deadly had entered Moriteri, word of the terror and death it caused would be everywhere.
He continued his journey south, asking his questions to anyone who would listen. Just across the border in Ellohar he spoke to a man who claimed his brother had been killed by a bronze-skinned monster whose mouth was filled with fire. “The bloody thing appeared out of nowhere while my brother was workin’ to dig out a tree stump,” said the man. He leaned against the rake he’d been using and mopped at his sweaty forehead with a worn, damp rag. “Then it touched him and Ullos just fell over dead.”
“So you saw it yourself?” The hair on Tyne’s arms stood on end.
The man nodded, oblivious to Tyne’s excitement. “Damned thing was big as a tree.”
“Where was this? Which way did it go after it…touched your brother?”
The man eyed Tyne suspiciously. “Why do you care? Are you lookin’ to die?”
Tyne narrowed his gaze. “The demon you saw came out of the ground in the Bronze Demon Hills and killed my younger brother. When we went into its crypt, one of my friends was driven mad and killed himself. Now I’m going to kill it, but I have to find it first.”
The man made an appraising look at Tyne. “Boy, turn around and go home. You don’t look like you’ve seen your twentieth year. This thing can kill with a touch. Your flimsy bow won’t even scratch it. If you find it, all you’ll end up doin’ is dyin’.”
Tyne felt himself redden, but did not argue with the man. He needed only one thing. “Which way did it go?” he repeated. He tried to put iron in his voice, to make it impossible for the man to deny him. “Was it still heading south?”
At first he wasn’t sure the man would reply. Then he shook his head, sighed, and said, “I don’t really know. It started off toward the southeast, but after it went a few hundred feet it disappeared just like that.” He snapped his fingers in front of Tyne’s face. “Like it was made of smoke, or had never really been there. Just somethin’ I imagined. But my brother was still dead.”
* * *
He kept his course to the southeast, following the Serel Road. No one he spoke to after the man whose brother had been killed had even heard rumors of such a creature. It seemed that when it vanished from the man’s sight it vanished from the world itself. The trail had truly gone cold.
Tyne was not discouraged. He’d known before he set out that the task would be hard. Too much time had passed. He should have gone after the creature with all the fury of the gods the moment Tremmel told them what had happened. But Tremmel had been alive then, and had needed his older brother more than ever. Tyne had been the glue holding his family together. He and others had searched, but not far enough, and not long enough.
A dense forest came into view in the distance to his left. He did not know its name, but as it remained in his view day after day, he realized it was immense. It drew closer to the Serel Road until the road and forest were separated by only a few hundred yards of open ground.
It rained one afternoon, a light steady drizzle that soon soaked him to his skin. He made camp that night just inside the edge of the forest, beneath the dense canopy high above him. He managed to light a fire and keep it lit through most of the evening.
He dozed off after a meager meal. He heard something in his sleep and awoke to find a man rummaging through his pack. The rain had stopped. A half-moon hung low in the sky, shining in his face like an omen.
Tyne, who’d been sleeping with his back against a tree, jumped to his feet and pulled out his knife. But the other man was too fast, and before Tyne could take a step, the other man had raised a sword toward him. He’d been holding it unsheathed while using his other hand to take Tyne’s coins and food.
“Ah, steady there, lad. I’d not want to skewer you ’cause you did something rash.” He spoke with a thick accent Tyne did not recognize.
Tyne shook with rage and indignation. He’d never been robbed before, and felt violated in a way he never could have imagined.
“Toss the knife to me,” said the man as he stuffed Tyne’s sack of coins into a pocket in his tattered cloak.
Tyne did not move. He studied the man before him. Older, perhaps thirty, with long blond hair plastered to his head by the rain. Bulkier than Tyne, with broad shoulders and a thick middle. A scraggly beard covered his cheeks and jaw like patches of moss on a tree.
“I said toss the knife to me. You don’t want to disobey me, lad. The One God guides my hand. Do as I say and you’ll find yourself richly rewarded.”
“So you’ll give back what you’ve stolen?” Tyne put as much contempt into his voice as he could. He made no move to hand over the knife.
The man’s face pinched in anger. “What I’m taking are contributions toward the work of the One God. You’ll acknowledge him, boy, or I’ll put you to the sword. There is a darkness coming, and the only way to defeat it is to convert all of Osseria to belief in the One God. You serve us, or you serve the Adversary. There is no middle ground.”
“There are no gods but those of Helcarea. This is what I think of you and your god of thieves.” Tyne spat on the ground, then tightened his grip on the knife.
The man snarled. “You’ll regret that, boy. I won’t kill you; that would be too easy. But you’ll scream for your mother before I’m done, and you’ll beg to worship the god of gods.”
Tyne remained still and did not speak. He knew the man was trying to provoke a reaction, which he was determined to deny him.
The man grasped the hilt of his sword with his other hand and charged.
For his greater size and bluster, the man was clumsy and obvious in his attack. Tyne’s lithe frame was easily able to sidestep the man’s thrust. Tyne chopped back with his knife as the thief slid past and opened a deep gash along the other man’s hand and forearm.
The thief screamed in rage. “Now I am going to kill you, you fucking whore-son!”
Despite the hatred roiling inside him, Tyne remained silent. He waited deftly on the balls of his feet, ready to shift left or right depending on how the man attacked him next.
The man tried to shake some of the blood from his hand but only succeeded in getting more of it on his palm and fingers. His grip on the sword grew unsure because of the slick blood on the hilt.
“I’ll cut out your heart and feed it to my dogs,” said the thief. “Oh, yes. I have friends close by. They’ll be here soon, and when we’re done with you the biggest piece left will be the size of your shriveled little prick.”
Tyne felt a thread of fear seep through the anger and hate. He’d never fought for his life like this. If the man were telling the truth about others, he needed to finish this fight and be gone.
The man lunged at him again. Tyne took a step back as if retreating, but then planted his right foot hard and sprang forward, deflecting the sword with the edge of his knife. Steel screamed as the two weapons scraped along one another.
Tyne shifted his knife to his left hand and wrapped his right arm around the man’s hands, holding them in the crook of his elbow and forcing the sword to remain behind him where it could do no harm. The man thrashed about madly, screaming. Tyne would lose his hold in a moment, but that was all the time he needed.
With his left hand, he drove his knife into the side of the man’s neck.
Tyne stared hard into the man’s eyes as the life drained from them. The sword fell from his slackened fingers. When he was sure the man was dead, Tyne yanked out his knife and dropped the corpse to the ground.
“That’ll teach you to steal from me.” He spat on the dead man’s face.
He had never killed a man before. The anger and sense of violation he’d felt at being robbed did not retreat. If anything, they grew stronger.
“No one steals from me and gets away with it,” he muttered as he retrieved his food and coins. He wiped the bloody hilt of the sword on the dead man’s cloak, then unbuckled the battered sheath’s belt and slid it from under the body. “No one.”
He hefted the sword and liked how it felt in his hand. He put on the belt and slid the sword into the sheath. It was a satisfying weight on his hip.
“Garrel!” Tyne crouched when he heard the faint shout in the distance. “Garrel, where did you run off to?”
The man was just over the low rise that lay beyond the edge of the forest. “Garrel, where are you?”
Tyne saw a figure appear on the rise, coming in his direction, led by his moon-cast shadow. Tyne stomped on the dwindling fire, hoping he had not yet been seen.
“You!” shouted the man. He started running toward the trees. “Wait there!”
Tyne swore under his breath. The man running toward him shouted, “Borio, Faltrus! Get the others! I’ve found someone!”
Tyne made sure he had all of his belongings, then dashed off into the trees. There was no other way he could go. He had no idea how many men were out there. If he tried to get out in the open, he would almost certainly be caught.
“Garrel’s been murdered!” shouted the thief’s companion. “Get over here you bloody fools!” He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted toward Tyne. “I see you, you damned killer! You won’t get away from us! When I catch you, you’ll wish you’d never been born!”
It was very slow going through the dense forest. It was hard to see in the darkness; only a fraction of the moonlight penetrated the intertwined canopy of branches and leaves. The ground was uneven and covered with deadfall, so he had to be careful with each step to avoid tripping over a rock or fallen branch. He tried his best to move quickly and quietly, but it was nearly impossible to avoid making noise.
He heard a number of men in the forest behind him. They had spread out in order to prevent him from doubling back and trying to escape past them. They had no need to be quiet and were moving alarmingly fast. He had no choice but to increase his own pace or risk being caught from behind.
“This way!” shouted one of the men. “I hear him! He’s not far!”
“I see him!” shouted another.
Tyne was far more panicked by this pursuit than he had been when confronting the thief Garrel. He’d broken out in a sweat, his breath came in stuttering gasps, and his heart hammered almost painfully in his chest. He could not fight so many men and hope to win. His only choice was to flee.
The gods damn these thieves! he thought as he raced through the trees. That bastard got no more than he deserved for stealing! This is not right! They’re the criminals, them and their damned thieving god, not me!
A low branch whipped across his face, cutting a gash across his cheek and nearly blinding his right eye. He cried out in pain, then stumbled and fell when he tried to wipe away the blood. He landed hard on a thick root that drove the air from his lungs. It felt like he’d been kicked by a horse. As he staggered painfully to his feet, he wondered if he’d broken a rib.
He held his side as he continued through the trees. A heavy branch caught him across the neck, leaving a wide, painful burn.
A clearing opened before him. The ground was relatively clear, so he ran across it as fast as he could, then slowed a bit when he reached the trees on the far side. The air felt suddenly colder, as if he’d somehow crossed a threshold separating summer from late fall. He shivered, and the gooseflesh made the raw scrape on his neck hurt even worse.
The men were still close behind him. He had to figure out a way to lose them before they could cut him off, or he stumbled across a deadfall or other obstacle that would leave him trapped.
The forest was growing even colder. He hugged his arms close for warmth, and was startled when he saw his breath puffing from his mouth in small clouds.
The men chasing him sounded more distant now. He risked stopping to look back, stepping behind a tree for cover. He did not see anyone in the moon-spackled dark, and could not pinpoint where they were from the sounds they made moving through the forest.
He kept moving the direction he’d been going. A dozen steps farther and the air grew warmer again.
He did not know how long he kept going. He grew faint with fatigue, and felt half-asleep on his feet. At some point during the night, he realized he no longer heard the sounds of pursuit. He stopped again and leaned against a tree, listening as carefully as he could. The forest was strangely quiet.
They were gone. They had either given up or lost his trail.
He slid down the trunk and was asleep almost at once.
* * *
Dusty shafts of sunlight slanted down from the treetops when he opened his eyes. He felt a moment of panic as he wondered where he was, then recalled the men who had chased him, but a quick look around showed him to be quite alone.
He wandered until he found a stream, then drank and refilled his water skin. He washed the crust of dried blood off his face, though doing so started the wound bleeding again. Tyne was famished but rationed himself to three bites of dried beef.
He sat down on a rock by the stream and wondered what he should do next. He feared that if he attempted to backtrack in order to get out of the forest, the men would be waiting for him. He had no idea how long their patience would last. The death of their companion Garrel might compel them to remain quite some time if they thought they could catch him.
But he had no idea how big the forest was, or how close he was to another way out. He could keep going in the direction he had been and reach another border in a hours or weeks — he simply did not know.
Even if he continued traveling the direction he had been and was able to quickly leave the forest, he would be far from the Serel Road. He had no real idea where the demon had gone, but the road at least provided him with the ability to question the greatest number of people. Who knew what might lie on the far side of the forest? The lands might be empty, or full of wolves or bears.
He decided he would go back the way he came. He would be careful when he neared the forest’s edge and veer southward before leaving it, hoping to remain hidden from view. With luck, he would avoid any of the thieves who might be waiting for him.
Tyne was not one to hesitate once he’d made a decision. He rose from the rock, stretched his back, and set off at once.
He quickly realized he had a problem. The forest looked distinctly different in daylight than it had last night, and he had not paid attention to the path he’d taken. He’d hoped he would find signs of his passage, but there was nothing apparent that he could see. He’d not followed a trail through the forest, and had not marked his way — his only thought had been to flee his pursuers.
Very soon he realized he was lost. He tried to remember any distinctive landmarks he had passed, but could not recall anything. The wounds on his face and neck throbbed painfully, as did the rib he’d struck when he’d fallen.
He wandered for several hours, growing angrier and angrier. Finally he sagged wearily to the ground, frustrated and frightened at his predicament. It was ridiculous, being lost in a forest. He was tracking a demon, by the gods!
Tyne tried to reason out what he should do. He was pretty certain he was headed westward, but the dense canopy overhead played tricks with the light, and he could not be sure of the sun’s position in the sky.
He looked around and paid closer attention to the landscape around him. For the first time he noticed that the trees looked…strange. He recognized oak, maple, birch, and others, but the branches were bent in unusual shapes, and the color of the bark was odd — he saw dark splotches like patches of disease on many trees, while others had what he could only think of as open wounds that leaked a brownish liquid he thought at first was tree sap, but when he stepped closer he realized it was not sap at all. The foul odor — a repulsive mingling of spoiled meat and bile — told him as much.
Even the leaves, now that he was paying attention to them, looked somehow wrong, with exaggerated serrations along their edges, almost like teeth.
What is this place? he wondered. The strange trees reminded him eerily of the twisted trunks that grew upon the Bronze Demon Hills. Could the demon’s mere passage cause this kind of damage? Was it close by even now?
No, upon reflection, he did not think so. He’d seen no other sign of ruined trees during his long journey from his home. He was sure he would have seen something, or heard stories of dark and mysterious transformations, if such things had happened.
He decided the trees were unimportant. A curiosity, certainly, but they had no bearing on what he was doing. He needed to focus. It was time to get out of this place and resume his search.
Tyne set off in what he hoped was a westward direction. He’d walked for perhaps an hour when he began to hear what he thought was a voice whispering nearby. He pressed himself against a tree, suddenly afraid that the men had set an ambush for him. He strained his ears, but all he could hear was a faint voice that came and went upon the light breeze. He could not make out any words or determine where the sound was coming from.
He set off again, keeping a watchful eye for any movement that would reveal where the mysterious whisperer was hiding. His nerves were on edge; he just wanted out of this damned place.
He caught momentary fragments of the voice, but never enough to hear distinct words or determine a location. He grew more and more angry. It seemed someone was mocking him, and if there was one thing Tyne despised, it was being mocked.
Let him have his fun for now. He no longer bothered to be careful in his movements. He walked at a brisk pace, wanting nothing more than to leave this cursed place behind. But if he shows himself, he’ll be in for a nasty surprise. Tyne grasped the hilt of the sword hanging at his hip. It was reassuringly solid, a dangerous and deadly weight he was not afraid to use should the need arise.
He faltered in his pace when darkness seemed to fall in a matter of moments. The sun had seemed relatively high in the sky from what he could tell; night, he had thought, was still hours away. But it had fallen during the time it had taken him to walk twenty or thirty paces. He wondered if some dense cloud had merely blocked the sun momentarily. Tyne looked up and thought he could see a few stars twinkling through the small gaps in the canopy overhead.
The whispering voice suddenly grew louder, though he still could not make out any words. He wheeled about, knife in hand, afraid that the whisperer had somehow snuck up on him in the dark.
He saw no one, though the whispering continued. “Who are you?” he shouted. “Show yourself, you coward!”
No one appeared. The whispering continued. Tyne was becoming more and more certain that the voice was speaking in a language other than Kelarin. He realized he could make out words, but could not understand them. It might have been gibberish, the inane ranting of a madman like crazy old Taeven from Harrol’s Well, but he didn’t think so. It sounded like a language, with a definite structure — just one he could not understand.
He wondered again how night could have fallen so fast. It simply was not possible. There had been no dusk, no twilight. Just what passed for daylight in this forest, and then night.
He remembered the barrier of cold he’d passed through the night before and wondered if that could have something to do with it. He’d heard stories of enchanted mists and magical rivers that when crossed by hapless and unsuspecting travelers transported them to the lands of the Little Folk or the parched deserts where demons dwelt. Could the river of cold air have been such a barrier?
If it was, where was he now? And how would he get home?
Tyne stopped, almost paralyzed with fear. He had to stop these wild conjectures. They only served to frighten him. His imagination was getting the better of him. Enchanted mists existed only in stories, not here in the real world.
He decided to walk a little further in the direction he’d been going before stopping for the night. He hoped that when morning arrived, he would have a better understanding of exactly where he was and what he needed to do to escape this wretched place.
Tyne had terrible dreams that night. In them, he caught glimpses of a dark shape in the trees, watching him with ravenous eyes, whispering to him in its seductive, foreign tongue. It was not human, he was sure of that, though he could not say exactly why — he could discern no real details of the nebulous silhouette. The figure was trapped in a glass or crystal sphere of some kind, whose facets glinted in the moonlight.
He tried to approach the thing, but as soon as he took a step, it vanished and reappeared some distance away, so that no matter how much he moved toward it, the shape remained the same distance from him. He felt it wanted him to follow, though to where he could not say. Maybe it’s trying to lead me out of here, he thought. Holding on to that slender hope, he followed the thing through the black forest.
Tyne could see a brighter area up ahead. The figure seemed to be moving toward it.
The brighter area was a large clearing. The illumination came from unobstructed moonlight washing across the low hill in the clearing’s center.
As soon as Tyne’s gaze fell on the hill, he began to shiver uncontrollably. There was nothing unusual about it, nothing out of the ordinary — but he felt with an absolute certainty that something was buried beneath it. Something of great danger, but also of great importance.
The figure and its crystal prison had vanished, but Tyne scarcely noticed. He could sense power here, as if the energy of ten thousand thunderstorms was coiled beneath the grassy mound, waiting to be unleashed.
This was what the figure wanted him to find.
He saw a pulsing light inside the hill, as if his sight somehow allowed him to see through grass and dirt and rock to the hidden heart within. He sensed that the figure he had seen was also within the light, that whatever lay buried beneath the hill was its true prison. He heard the whispering voice again, only this time it was louder, and he heard it not with his ears but directly in his mind, as if a second being shared his thoughts. He still did not understand its words, but he grasped its meaning well enough: Come here. Unearth me. Free me.
Tyne woke the next day with a renewed sense of purpose. His dream had been true, a vision sent to him by the great gods of Helcarea to help him on his quest. His faith in his country and his gods was about to be rewarded.
The hill was real, and there was a weapon in it. A thing that would grant him the power he needed to destroy the demon. He was going to find it, and learn to use it, and at last have his revenge.
* * *
Unlike his attempt to backtrack through the forest, he could vividly recall the path he’d taken in the dream, even though the vision had taken place in darkness while he now walked in daylight. He felt that he could have closed his eyes and found his way, that he was being guided by a power other than himself. It invigorated him. He was meant to come into this forest, to become lost and pass through the barrier of cold, all so he could be brought to this moment.
Tyne paused and his breath caught in his throat when he saw the clearing ahead, the gentle rise of the hill visible between the trees. It was real! The gods truly were setting his feet upon the path to his vengeance!
He ran to the hill, a wide round hump like a boil rising from the center of the clearing. Tyne took note that the trees around the rim of the clearing bent away from the hill — even the branches curled back like the arms of men trying to avoid the heat of a raging fire. The trees don’t like the power buried here, he realized. They’d run from it if they could. He found this thought comforting rather than frightening — after all, this potent and deadly power would soon be his.
Tyne surveyed the hill for a time, trying to recall exactly where the vision had shown it to be buried. When he was sure he was at the right spot, he dropped his pack, then went back to the forest with his knife to fashion a makeshift shovel.
When he was ready, he began to dig. The whispering voice spoke once more, three words he did not understand.
But it sounded pleased.
* * *
Tyne dug for three days. He broke seven of his makeshift shovels gouging out the clay that lay a few feet below the topsoil, and cursed repeatedly his lack of proper tools.
At the end of the first day his fingers were caked with dirt and scraped bloody; they were so cramped he could hardly move them. When he woke the next morning, his hands hurt so much he was not certain he would be able to continue. He found a nearby stream and submerged them in the cold water for a while, then gently flexed them until he felt he could grasp the shovel tightly enough to continue.
The second night he dreamed that the bronze demon was laughing at him for his fool’s errand, that there was no secret power buried beneath the hill. The spirits of Rukee and Tremmel stood behind the demon, watching Tyne with sad and disappointed eyes.
But he would not be deterred. He had dreamed of the hill, and had found it exactly where his dream had shown him it would be. The power within it was here as well. He would not let himself be swayed by doubts simply because the way was hard.
The whispering voice spoke little. When it sounded displeased, Tyne took that to mean that his digging was off course, so he corrected it until the voice spoke again in an encouraging manner. He no longer questioned what it was or its intentions. It was helping him, and that was all he needed to know.
Late in the afternoon of the third day since he’d begun digging, the sharpened point of the thick branch he was using to scrape out the soil around some rocks at the bottom of his deep hole broke into an open space. His blood ran cold as he remembered the demon’s crypt and the suicidal madness that had taken Marchus. Was there madness here, as well as power?
He drew back the branch and kicked out the stones. He would not be deterred by fear. His task had been appointed by the gods, and he would see it done.
The stones fell into a small cavity. He crouched down and reached in with his hand.
The whispering voice was euphoric as Tyne searched the cavity, jabbering to such a degree that Tyne finally shouted, “For the love of the gods, shut up!” The voice fell mercifully silent.
His battered fingers touched the stones that had fallen in, then felt around the hard clay that had formed the small pocket deep within the hill. The stones were in his way, so he removed them. Where is the damned bloody thing? he thought in frustration. He did not really know exactly what it was he would find, but reasoned it would be self-evident when he located it.
Other rocks were stuck in the clay. He decided to pry them out. If he did not find it after that, he would widen the cavity. Perhaps there was another opening behind it, or maybe the power was sunken beneath the clay.
He yanked three rocks from the cavity wall, then groped until he touched a fourth. This one was smooth, and it was hard for him to get a proper grip. He had to wiggle it back and forth to loosen it before he could pull it out.
This was no rock — it was a sphere the size of a large goose egg, with a milky pearlescent sheen visible through the caked layer of dirt.
This was the source of the power. It had to be.
As if in answer, the voice shouted a wordless, triumphant cry.
Tyne climbed out of the hole by the rope he’d anchored to the hill, then took the stone to the stream, where he washed it. The pearlescence swirled across its surface.
He held it close, wondering what power the stone contained and how he could make it his own. Was there an incantation he needed to recite? A spell to make it work?
Tyne’s knees buckled when a vision appeared to him with the force of a thunderclap. He saw sheer-sided mountains whose feet stretched to the very edge of a sea. Verdant forests lay in the mountain valleys, untouched by civilization.
But it was what he saw in the sky….
Dragons flew about the peaks on great leathery wings. He had never seen a real dragon, but he’d heard the old stories and had seen drawings of them once in a book his Uncle Lawren had owned. These were different in some ways, but not enough to make him doubt what he saw.
One alighted upon an outcropping of rock shaped like the prow of a ship. Behind the outcropping was a cave in the mountainside. The beast folded its wings, reared its head, and let out a gout of orange flame before turning and vanishing into the cave.
He knew without question he was witnessing something real. These creatures of legend existed somewhere in the present world. But why was he being shown them? What did they have to do with the stone?
As if in answer, he felt a connection like an invisible thread appear between the stone and the dragons. Some of the creatures swung their sinuous necks back and forth as if searching for the tether they now felt but could not see. A few roared in anger and confusion, and a few others sprayed fire all round them, as if hoping to burn it away.
The stone was somehow linked to the dragons. They were the key to its power.
What is this thing I’ve found?