Authors: Dennis L. McKiernan
Aravan looked at the firelight dancing on the faces of the Waerlinga. “Let me a tale unfold for thee, a tale of a time long past, for I have heard how the Khalian Mire came to be, though I was not on Mithgar when it occurred and did not witness the events I am about to relate, so I cannot vouch for the truth of them.”
Riatha poured more tea into each of their cups, and all settled back as Aravan began:
“In the Time Before, there was a crystal castle with a rainbow bridge sitting midst a fair land, much like the rolling hills to the west, yet forested thickly. The castle with its bridge was a marvel to behold, and occupied by a Folk most fair. Some say they were Elven, while others say they were Men, and none I know can say for certain which indeed they were. Ye see, of the Time Before little is known, except that it was in the days before Elves knew of those things worth striving for and instead sought to conquer all.
“Regardless, in the center of the forest stood a crystal castle peopled by a Race most fair. And ’round the castle and beyond the bridge were gardens of remarkable flowers and trees and running waters and dancing fountains and a sward so green as to put emeralds to shame.
“Beyond the gardens lay the wide forest, a woodland filled with game: hare and stag, deer and chuck, boar and wild kine, and more, oh more, oh very much more.
“Through this realm a clear river flowed, its waters pellucid and cool and with a taste to quench all thirst, and it was filled with fish and eels and clawed backswimmers, frogs and turtles, too. Thereupon as well were waterfowl: ducks and geese and swans and loons and colorful gallinules, and other such swimmers and waders.
“Birds dwelled in the forest as well, gamebirds and songbirds alike.
“Fruit and nuts grew on the branches and vines, and berries on the briars. Honey filled many a hollow tree, and the ground was rich with herbs and mosses and greens and mushrooms wondrous and rare. And where the soil was tilled and planted, gardens grew and fields flourished, and their bounty was plentiful.
“Cattle and goats and sheep found lush grazing, and
crofters’ barnyards were filled with fowl and their nests with eggs.
“Every evening, it seemed, a gentle rain replenished the soil.
“So abundant was the land that no spit was without at least a hare or a fish or a stag or a goose or other such, all so savory, so tasty…well, let us just say that hunger was an unknown thing.
“And the King who reigned o’er all was blessed.
“Yet there were those who coveted the crystal castle with its rainbow bridge and lush gardens surrounding it and the rich Land beyond, with its forests and fields and clear, clear waters, and would have it all be their own.
“One of these covetous ones was a King in his own right, and he proposed a challenge to the rightful ruler. His army he would bring to the sward before the castle and there they would meet in battle, the winner to take all.
“And so knights and squires, footmen and bowmen, all gathered on the wide sward. The two great armies met and fought a mighty War. Back and forth raged the combat, the striving bloody and fierce, and tens of thousands fell. Yet the rightful King won the day, though of his great Host there remained but a pitiful few, yet his enemy had far, far less.
“But the enemy was most treacherous, and amid his ranks a Sorcerer stood, the mightiest of his day; and he was the true power behind the enemy throne. And when the Sorcerer saw that the battle was lost, that the forests and fields and remarkable gardens and the crystal castle with its rainbow bridge would not be his, he called up a mighty spell. And with a cataclysmic lurch the land fell, forest and fields all. The gardens themselves sank beyond sight, and the rainbow bridge and crystal castle shattered into shards beyond count.
“The spell was so powerful, so wicked, that all living creatures within its sphere were destroyed: all the remaining knights and squires, all the remaining footmen and bowmen, all the pages and thralls, all nobles, including both Kings, as well as their Queens, and last of all the Sorcerer himself.
“The clear river that flowed through the land continued to stream down from the mountains, and for many months it went no farther, pooling on the land instead. Slowly the
great depression filled, and the forest and plants, the herbs and mosses, and the wondrous mushrooms, all were drowned. All the dead plants and animals and Men—or Elves—all rotted.
“Ages passed. Silt collected. The depression, which was shallow to begin with, the depression slowly became a great bog, a mire, a swamp. Black cypress came, and rushes, and a grey moss that hangs down to catch up and strangle the unwary. Reeds and scum and snakes and bloodsuckers came, and beasts too foul to name. And what was once the most blessed of Lands became the Land most baned, due to a Sorcerer’s curse.
“They say that the spirits of the dead are forever trapped within, those who fought in the War. And that is what ye see when ye sight a glimmer in the dark, dark canopied vaults therein—ghost candles, corpse candles, will-o’-the-wisps they’re called; but by any name they are the spirits of the dead, lights that’ll draw ye to a watery doom if ye follow their lure.
“Yet that’s not all who inhabit the mire, for there, too, are the undead. Decaying corpses riddled with rot yet curiously ever preserved lie beneath the black muck and the stagnant pools, rising up at night to stalk through the sucking mud and bubbling ooze and choking vines, o’er the decay and slime, sometimes silent, sometimes calling out for the living, seeking victims, for these are the undead reaching out to clutch whoever they can, to suck the life out of the very blood and sinews and bones of the pitiful wretches they capture.
“And that, my wee Waerlinga, that is the tale of the horrors of the Khalian Mire. Beware the call of the rotting undead, beware the ghostly lights, beware the Sorcerer’s curse, but most of all”—Aravan leaned close, his voice dropping to a whisper; the Warrows’ eyes were as wide as saucers—“most of all beware of those who tell such tales, for those are the ones who will
Aravan’s hands snaked out, clutching at Waerlinga, grabbing each by an arm.
they shrieked simultaneously, startled beyond their wits; then all burst forth in laughter, Urus’s great rolling booms roaring, Riatha’s silver voice trilling, Aravan belling, and Gwylly and Faeril both rolling upon the ground, mirth pealing.
The horses and mules looked about as if to say,
, and when Riatha noted it and, unable to speak, pointed instead, laughter rode upon laughter until throats grew hoarse and ribs ached.
* * *
Yet in the central grasp of the Khalian Mire, deep in the rotting ruins of an ancient castle, a yellow-eyed Man stood over a shattered crypt, muttering arcane words above an open sarcophagus, a sarcophagus occupied. In the guttering torch-light,
shrank back in fear, trying to remain unseen, trying to slip from sight among the writhing shadows, for they knew not what next would come.
toke stood above the ancient sarcophagus, his yellow eyes glaring down at the desiccated remains lying within. Rotted raiment clad the withered flesh. Skeletal hands clutching a scepter were folded across the corpse’s chest. Brown with untold age, dried skin stretched taut across a sunken-cheeked face, as a skull covered with dark, shrivelled leather parchment. Hollow sockets stared upward, ebon holes unseeing, and yellowed teeth shone past mummified lips grinning a rictus smile. To one side lay the shattered lid of the stone coffin, the knightly figure carven thereupon smashed into a thousand scattered pieces. Feeble, wavering torch-light cast writhing shadows throughout the chamber, dark pits showing entrances to the myriad passages riddling the catacombs. In the guttering torchlight,
shrank back in fear, trying to remain unseen, trying to slip from sight within the fluttering gloom, for they knew not what next would come.
There remained but seven
—those and five
—Vulgs. All told, Stoke had started his trek through the snowstorm with twenty-seven
. Of these, twenty
had slipped aside in the outbound canyon to ambush those who followed; the remaining seven
had gone with Stoke into the blizzard, leaving a track to lure the followers on. The trap, though, had been a disaster, for the ambushers could not see through the blinding nighttime
snow, and fifteen of the
and two of the
had been slain. Of the five
who had survived that deadly encounter, one had died of a stab wound taken in the combat, and the other four had been slain by Stoke in his wrath at discovering that they had failed. The two surviving
, Stoke’s favorites, had been spared. And so, altogether there now were but seven
in Stoke’s entourage.
They had evaded the pursuers by taking passage under a mountain unto a hidden valley and then another passage beyond. Southerly they had fared, the tunnels disastrously weakened by the quaking land, stone falling all about even as they fled. Twice they had spent days digging through massive blockages, even as the land wrenched and shuddered, threatening to collapse the mountains down on them. And yet they had survived, travelling aboveground at night and underground by day. Emerging at last from the Grimwall Mountains, they had bypassed the village of Inge, for Baron Stoke would leave no clue as to his direction of travel. Swiftly they had come to the Khalian Mire, and Stoke had raced on ahead with his
, leaving the
behind, slogging after through the swamp with all of its deadly denizens. During the day the
had burrowed beneath mucky hummocks to escape the Sun, seeking refuge but finding instead writhing bloodsucking leeches, blind mouths questing. Two nights after entering the mire, they finally had come to the ancient ruins of the castle and fled down into the dungeons and catacombs below, where Stoke and his
And now they had come unto this place, this ebon crypt.
Water ran from their legs, pooling on the floor, for although the chamber itself had been dry when they smashed the seal and broke in, in the passages behind they had waded through tunnels awash with bog water, the walls slime-laden, the ceilings adrip, half-seen things writhing out of sight, escaping the feeble light of the torches they bore. They had shattered open the crypt, revealing the sarcophagus, and the Baron alone had heaved the massive lid onto the floor, smashing it asunder. And now Stoke stood above the corpse and spoke the words of power, for only the dead could tell him what he wished to know:
Deadly concentration was dark on Stoke’s brow.
rolled out his voice, commanding the dead one to listen.
Clenching his long, grasping fingers into clawed fists, Stoke imperiously dictated,
commanding the dead one to obey.
Sweat beaded on Stoke’s lip as he called out,
“Idoû toîs ophthalmoîs toîs toû nekroû!”
commanding the dead one to see what the dead can see, visions beyond time and space.
Stoke channelled fierce energy through his being, perspiration running down his forehead, and he spoke the next decree:
“Idoû toùs polémious toùs emoùs toùs mè nùn diokóntous!”
commanding the dead one to look through space for the enemies who now pursue.
Salt stung his eyes, yet Stoke did not wipe it away, for to do so would disastrously loosen his control; instead his chanting voice demanded:
commanding the dead one to find the foe.
Now Stoke’s teeth gritted and ground with the strain, yet he uttered the compelling words:
“Tòn páton tòn autôn heurè!”
commanding the dead one to discover the path of the enemy.
His body slick with effort, his hands trembling, Stoke mandated,
“Eipè moî hò horáei!”
commanding the dead one to reveal what it sees.
Now Stoke’s entire being shook, for such arcane workings called for energy beyond that which most could give, his voice canting,
“Anà kaì lékse!”
commanding the corpse to rise and speak.
Sweat pouring down, muscles knotted with rack, eyes bulging, jaws clenched, mind shrieking for relief, Stoke spoke the final command,
“Egò gàr ho Stókos dè kèleuo sé!”
invoking the name of Stoke commanding the dead one.
As of a legion of voices in distant agony, the chamber filled with unnumbered whispering groans, the corpse stirring.
shrank back in fear. Even the
warding the tunnels seemed to cower. Stoke, his yellow eyes burning with a ghastly light, called out again,
“Anà kaì lékse; egò gàr ho Stókos dè kèleuo sé!”
A shriveled hand reached up and clutched a side of the stone sarcophagus, dust exhaling upward, brittle flesh sloughing downward. Slowly, agonizingly, the other hand reached for the coffin edge; the scepter, loosed from its millennia-long grasp, rolled aside. Tattered garments crumbled,
falling away from mummified arms. Skeletal fingers gripped the rim; dry bones cracked. Again there came the massed groans of a multitude, and haltingly, falteringly, by inchmeal the corpse dragged itself upward, desiccated flesh and cartilage and sinew and bone crumbling with the effort. At last it levered itself to a sitting position, and slowly, vertebrae snapping, it turned its skull-like head, the tight, dry lips drawn away from yellowed teeth, empty eye pits staring at the one who summoned. The jaw hinged, parchment flesh crumbling away, and speaking as one voice a hideous choir of whispers filled the chamber. The
whimpered at the empty sound, looking about for a place to flee. And the voices spoke in a language the
did not comprehend.