Authors: Michael Reynolds
The winds had picked up speed,
kicking snow into his eyes from every angle. Although Jaxius had grown
accustomed to the blinding white, he struggled to see through the wall of
falling snow. He had been more than a bit relieved when they passed the campsite
where they met Chlora and found no trace of her. Not surprised, really, just
relieved. Jaxius thought, perhaps, with that awkward place behind them, they
could focus their attention to getting back to Nordras, and then he could find
the time to focus on the riddles Chlora left with him.
"How much farther?" Tolian
asked. His voice barely rose above the roaring wind.
"Not far," Grundar called
back. "Just keep going."
No sooner than the words escaped
Grundar's mouth, did the forest end and the shadow of Nordras' border markers
came into view.
"Home . . ." Grundar said,
as the glow from a campfire peaked through a lull in the wind and snow. That
one word resounded in each of their souls. It had been nearly a month since
they left to rescue Bergar. Time had changed them while they were gone. Life
had changed. None of them knew exactly what "home" meant anymore. The
one notion that they all shared about home was that it had to be somewhere
warmer than the knee-deep snow of this accursed forest.
The three men raced toward the hill,
each stopping short of the crest, remembering the ditches dug to keep out
invaders. They worked their careful way across, feeling through the snow for a
safe place to traverse.
One by one, members of the clan came
out to greet them and help them across, showing them places where the logs had
fallen and settled. The hearty clasping of hands and warm welcomes quickly
turned somber as each man noted the grave expression on Grundar's face. Silence
and snow were soon enough the only things that filled the air.
One young man dared to break that
silence. "Bergar?" he asked unnecessarily.
Grundar just shook his head and
thanked the gods that the quiver in his bottom lip was hidden by his beard and
"Bravely, like a true man,"
Tolian said. He knew that was now on the mind of every man there.
It sure didn't feel brave.
"And he has been avenged,"
Jaxius added taking the final steps across the makeshift barriers. "The
witch Fylzia is dead. I made sure of it myself."
"Also, I think we may have shown
those dastardly invaders the grave error of their ways. Their numbers are
greatly diminished." Tolian said.
"If what ye say be true,"
one man said. "then we should have a feast in honor of our fallen
Oh please, no. I... I... ugh. Is this
really happening? I swear I am going to find that witch in the afterlife and
rip her to pieces
Please, stop them.
"In this storm?" Tolian
asked just before he noticed the changes to the camp. Several of the individual
tents had been reworked together to form one large tent-hall. Surrounding this
community area were the separate sleeping tents of each man.
"Our scouts and mystics foresaw
the storm. We were prepared for worse. It seems that yer returning has brought
with it the tail o' the storm." One of the warriors explained. "Now,
shall we git in an' warm this blizzard from yer bones? Besides, we were just
settlin' down for the evenin' meal."
"That sounds divine,"
Thank you for trying
, Bergar quipped.
The men walked through the flap
opening into a blaze of warmth, a welcome change to the blizzard outside. The
benches and tables that had been scattered throughout the camp before were all
now neatly set in rows broken up by a few large heating fires. Most of the men
from the clan were scattered about the tables preparing food or sitting to eat.
A hush flowed over them as they noticed Grundar's return.
Grundar walked directly to the head
of the endmost table and took his seat. He sat absently watching his brothers
and friends passing the remains of a winter hunt around the table. After a few
minutes, Tolian and Jaxius joined him. They all sat in silence, eating their
first decent meal in over a month.
Grundar broke their silence. He
looked at Jaxius and said, "What do ye intend on doin' now?"
"Well, I think I will pass the
winter here. And when spring breaks, I will go and look for answers."
Grundar nodded. He opened his mouth
to speak, but the words caught in his throat.
"If that is unacceptable to you,
I can make other arrangements," Jaxius said, noting Grundar's inability to
speak his mind aloud.
"No. I was meanin' ye could
stay. Longer if'n ye wished it."
"Thank you, but I have to find
out what is happening to me. What Chlora meant about me. There is too much left
Again, Grundar nodded. He turned his
head to Tolian. "And ye?"
"I will follow my friend here.
It is what I set out to do, years ago, and do it I shall."
And my wishes be damned
, Bergar grumbled inside of Tolian's
That is not true. I think we might be
able to find more information and maybe a way out of this mess if we stay with
Jaxius. When he is involved, things seem to happen
, Tolian answered the young
Grundar stood and raised his cup. The
room hushed. "Let it be known that I, Grundar, son of Hundar, father of
Bergar, am proud. I am proud of me son and the man he became. I am proud of 'is
honor and 'is love for 'is people. I am proud to have friends who, when ye need
'em, will risk everythin' fer a fool's errand. Let it be known tha' these two
men, they be members o' this clan. Forever! Thus proclaims Grundar, son of
With that, Grundar turned up his cup
and poured its contents in his mouth and on his beard. The drink mostly found
his beard. Then he plopped back to his seat.
The celebration of their return and
of the life of Bergar went on for most of the night. As the fires died down low
in the early morning hours, Jaxius rose from his seat and went out into the
night. Following the directions he gathered from the morning watch, he finally
came to his destination. He tapped the front flap of the tent, hoping the man
he sought was awake.
"Come in, Returned One," an
ancient sounding voice said. "I have been expecting you for near upon a
Over a thousand miles away from the
blistering wind and freezing cold of Nordras, a small group gathered. Each wore
his black robe pulled tight and his hood over his head. Rain pelted the circle
of stones atop the hill where they were assembled. All of the gathered men remained
outside of the ancient henge, save one. He paced back and forth amidst the
toppled stones, his hands clasped behind his back. Each agitated step drove him
faster and faster.
"Where is he?" the lone
As if to answer his impatient question,
Aportus crested the top of the hill. He hurried to his impatiently waiting
master who now stood with his arms folded across his chest.
"Well?" his master asked.
"Have you found him?"
"Yes, sire," came Aportus'
humble reply. He had, in fact, found his target and brought him back just as
his master had demanded. He tugged on the long rope that trailed behind him.
Another hooded figure trudged up the hill with his hands bound in front of him.
"Good, good," Aportus' lord
said. "Which one is this, Aportus?"
"He is Ariax of Twern,
"Ah, my dear Ariax," he
said raising his arms in mock invitation. "So good of you to join our
Aportus again hauled on the rope that
bound Ariax's hands, and Ariax stumbled forward. Blood dripped from the hood of
his cloak, an obvious sign of the brutal beating that he had taken on his
Raising his voice and his arms,
Aportus' master called, "My friends, tonight I have called you all
together because one of our order has failed. The witch, Fylzia, allowed two
men to interrupt her ritual and temporarily halt our plans. Is this something
that we can allow lightly?"
"No!" resounded through the
"The witch is dead, but shall we
let that be the only punishment that is dealt out?"
"No!" again echoed across
"Then join with me in calling
the Crimson Circle and our ancient magics. We shall use this cur as a sacrifice
to appease our Dark Prince."
"B-but," the prisoner said,
"I had nothing to do with the witch. You must have me mistaken, I
"I know who you are," the
robed leader interrupted. "And I also know that you had nothing to do with
Fylzia. You shall be our sacrifice simply because you were tardy. My patience
with you is spent. It was depleted when you did not arrive at the appointed
time. Now, since you disrespected me so much as to be late, at least respect
yourself enough not to whimper and whine at your newly appointed duty."
With that, Aportus' master leveled a
hand at his prisoner's chest and turned it palm upward. The prisoner floated up
from the ground, suspended by an invisible magic. The master opened his other
hand and a dagger from Aportus' belt cleaved through the air, burying itself
deep into the man's stomach. It sliced a bloody pattern across the man's torso
before plunging hilt deep into his throat.
"We call to you, Oh Gredgeshnosch!
We call you from the depths, from your seat of power. We call upon you to aid
us this night. Make the failures of our former sister right. We call you by
blood and by rain! Come now, to this world." The entire assemblage
repeated his words, chanting the summoning spell while their sacrifice bled
upon the evilly consecrated stones. Then the leader of the foul ritual intoned
several words in a language unknown to any in the circle but himself.
As he spoke these words the ground
rumbled and shuddered. Moonlight cut through the rain clouds and filled the
hilltop with an eerie glow. The light bounced from stone to stone amplifying
and focusing with each bounce. Finally, leaping from the last stone, the light
struck one of the thirteen participants in the chest. The brilliance burst
forth from his eyes and mouth and crossed the hilltop once more. It struck
another participant and rebounded across the circle. This continued until every
robed person stood, with eyes wide and mouth open, spewing forth concentrated
moonlight. The moonlight finally struck Aportus' master, lifting him into the
air. He hovered above the soggy earth chanting in some ancient, demonic
language. He continued to intone and the earth split apart, large chunks
falling away to a river of fire and smoke below.
Ariax followed the earth into the
pit, screaming the entire way. Hundreds of thousands of arms reached out and
groped for freedom, feeling the debris pass. One hand managed to grab Ariax as
he flew past, jerking him to a stop. Many otherworldly arms clutched at the
doomed man, ripping him apart. His agonizing wails never ceased.
"Come forth! Do my bidding.
Bring yourself. Bring your friends. I call forth an army from the fiery pit! Go
forth and slay my enemies!"
Shadows covered the surface of the
glowing orange-red lava. Screeches and howls filled the air as an army of many
armed, many-legged fiends belched forth from the mouth of the abyss. Their
wings blackened the sky. Their stench forced a few of the society to double
over and retch. With the circle broken thus broken, the ground sealed closed.
Aportus watched on from the shadows.
He knew that his master was ruthless and powerful, but what he had witnessed
this night awakened in him a fearsome new respect for his master's power. When
the ground finally stopped shaking, he stepped out from behind the stone and
peered into the sky. He took a few steps closer to the center of the henge and
his master. Aportus was only a few steps from his hooded master when the ground
beneath him heaved and jerked again, throwing him to the ground.
A giant ape-like hand erupted from
the bulging terrain. A second hand sprouted forth and clenched the ground.
Finally, a giant primate head broke free from the earth, and a long snake-like
body followed, coiling beneath the massive torso. Immense bat-like wings
unfurled, throwing mud and dirt out into the night. The rain sizzled as it fell
on the beast.
"Who calls me by my true name
and releases me to this world?" Gredgeshnosch thundered.
"I do," the dark leader
"And what is your name,
The man laughed loudly with his hands
on his hips. "You do not make demands of me, creature. You need not know
me except as your summoner. You will do exactly as I say. You may call me
The demon raised a massive hand to
swat the diminutive creature away. He froze with his hand in the air, unable to
force it to his will.
"I am no mere mortal. I have
lived and died a score of times since my soul's beginning. I am power
incarnate," Aportus' master said. "I am your master, and you shall do
my bidding for 100 days. At which time you shall return directly to your
infernal home. These are the terms of the spell that summoned you. These terms
The half ape, half snake demon howled
its disapproval, but, in the end, nodded his acceptance of the demands of his
new master. He stared into his master's piercing eyes. The look that crept onto
Gredgeshnosch's face was a mixture of awe and fear. The giant demon shrank back
from his new master.
"Now, that we are understood.
There is a certain half-elf who stays with a tribe of northmen. I require you
to retrieve him and his traveling companion. Bring them to me. Destroy anyone
who stands in your path. Go!"
Gredgeshnosch tightened his coiled
body beneath him and shoved off, into the air. His mighty wings flapped, and he
took flight. The cloud of demons followed him as he sailed to the north.
Aportus watched the fearsome demons
until they flew beyond his sight. Fear gripped him as he contemplated the shear
amount of destruction that his master had just unleashed on the world.
"You haven't begun to fathom the
power that I command," his master said, as though he could read Aportus'