Events are coming to a head. The battle for CarCamel has ended and Kaplyn is seen as its saviour. Catriona, the Thracian Queen, wants him to lead the army in its fight against Trosgarth, with a dragon at his command.
Kaplyn, however, has other ideas. He fears dragons, but does not know why. His dreams remain plagued by the great serpents and yet one helped them to defeat the enemy. It is a conundrum that cannot be solved and instead Kaplyn decides to pursue an image shown to him by Astalus, the Thracian wizard. The image was that of Vastra, now an old man, held captive in Aldrace.
Kaplyn harbours a terrible fear. Vastra recovered a crystal from the Tree of Life and, with it he can open a gateway to the demon world. A permanent one! Should that happen then nothing can prevent Drachar’s Shade from crossing the Great Divide at the head of a demon horde. Fear drives Kaplyn on and he worries that he has made a crucial mistake in abandoning his people.
The secret that is Shastlan is about to be played out and Kaplyn will be driven to the very brink of despair. Not only are lives at stake, but so too are the souls of the damned. The army is about to be betrayed and the Prophecy is set to fail. A great Doom is about to fall upon the land and yet the army will march; proud banners set against the might of the demon hordes.
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Shadow of the Demon
By David Burrows
An Unexpected Encounter
Kaplyn wearily shifted his weight as he kept watch over the small camp. It was dark. Not the complete blackness he had become accustomed to during the recent battlesthat had been unbearable. Now faint moonlight bathed the land, enabling him to see the silhouettes of the surrounding hills and thick gorse that grew in profusion in this part of Thrace.
Even though he could see, he still glanced down at his unsheathed sword. The onyx metal remained dull, reassuring him there were no krell or demons in the vicinity. If there had been, then it would have glowed blue in warning. The wild was a dangerous place, made more so after the recent battles. Roving bands of defeated enemy had fled to the surrounding lands, seeking to escape to their homelands. Kaplyn and his companions were far beyond the range of any help, and, to make matters worse, their journey was taking them north, deeper into enemy territory.
Absently he fingered the scar on his chest, the cold, crystalline surface felt alien. He shuddered as he recalled the final days of the battle at CarCamel and being spurned by those closest to him. His thoughts turned to Catriona, the newly crowned Thracian Queen, and her memory tugged painfully at his heart.
He tried to dispel his gloomy thoughts, contemplating instead the men who had chosen to accompany him: Lars, Lomar and especially Tumarl, who was such an enigma. He had sworn vengeance against the krell for the death of his family, a tortured soul who could find no peace. And yet strangely, of the three men, Kaplyn felt he understood Tumarl the most. The loss of Kaplyn’s family and friends was a difficult burden, and he felt guilty that he could have prevented their deaths. It would be too easy to become like Tumarl, to live only for the moment, seeking war against his enemies and losing himself in that single goal.
Kaplyn tried to focus on the task at hand and his eyes searched the surrounding night. Suddenly, a nagging feeling that he was not alone swept over him. His blade remained dull but, even still, his discomfort grew. He laid down his sword, taking up his bow and reaching for an arrow.
“Hold,” a voice commanded from somewhere alarmingly close. Kaplyn’s heart was racing and, although his bow was strung, he did not have an arrow to hand.
“Put your weapon down and back away,” the voice said.
Kaplyn hesitated and considered calling to his friends. “A bolt is aimed at your heart,” the voice growled.
Kaplyn stood, backing away from his weapons, inwardly cursing himself for daydreaming. A shape detached itself from the gorse closest to Kaplyn. The silhouette was shorter than Kaplyn but much broader across the shoulders. Other shapes peeled away from the shadows.
Behind him he heard firstly Lomar’s and then Lars’ voices as they were woken. Tumarl’s angry shouts filled the air, and there followed sounds of a scuffle before silence abruptly descended.
A fire was lit and Kaplyn was forced to sit close to the flames. Lars was jostled to sit opposite him and two of their captors appeared dragging Tumarl’s unconscious body between them. Then Lomar joined them, his pale complexion standing out in stark contrast to the dark of the night.
In the light of the flames, it was the first chance Kaplyn had to see their captors and the realisation sent a shock through his soul.
He did not know whether they were friendly or not, for recently there had been little contact between the races.
“Wellthey are not krell,” one of the dwarves stated, joining the others by the fire. His tone suggested disappointment. “But I’ll warrant that fellow is a demon,” he said, pointing his axe blade at Lomar whose scarlet eyes marked him in stark contrast to the others.
“He’s not a demon,” Kaplyn interrupted, seeking to dispel their fears. “We are enemies of Trosgarth.”
One of the dwarves snorted. “Then more fool you, travelling abroad with so many krell about.”
More dwarves joined them about the fire, carrying the captured weapons. One dwarf held Kaplyn’s blade in his hand and he looked on it in wonder. “It’s Eldric made!”
“Let me see it,” demanded another. Kaplyn tried to turn to see the dwarf who spoke but was shoved by one of the captives. “Keep facing the fire,” a voice warned.
Behind him several dwarves muttered in surprise, but he could not tell what was said. Instead he looked at the dwarves opposite. They were not as he had imagined; they were too grim for one thing. They were also taller than he imagined, although the tallest still barely reached Kaplyn’s shoulder. Each wore a long beard and broad leather belts from which hung decorative pouches and other objects that Kaplyn did not understand. Their tunics were of tanned leather, their trousers were made from wool and they wore sturdy boots, laced up to their knees. They favoured dark colours, possibly to help them blend into the night, and each carried a double-
A gasp by his side made him want to look around, but after his earlier warning he refrained. “That one there,” he heard one of the captors saying.
Two dwarves came to stand in front of Lars. One was carrying the big man’s axe in his broad hands and, even though it was huge by comparison to his own weapon, he looked more than comfortable with it. Lars looked up from where he sat, remaining silent, the fire highlighting the ginger streaks in his otherwise blond beard.
“Where did you get this?” one of the dwarves asked.
“We found it in Tanel, an Eldric city,” Lars answered.
The dwarves murmured excitedly.
“Are you one of the Eldric?” the dwarf questioned.
Smiling, the big man shook his head.
“You are certainly not a dwarf,” the other stated. Lars stood and he towered over the dwarves, causing them to take a step backwards. “If it was not for your height, I would have judged you to be one of us,” the dwarf stated. “Never before have I met a race who favours the axe.” The dwarf bowed before Lars, although the others still eyed the group darkly, clearly not yet convinced they were friends.
One of the dwarves stepped forward and Kaplyn marked him to be their leader. He was older than the others were and his beard was greying. “You are our prisoners and must be judged by our King.”
“We cannot,” Kaplyn stated bluntly. “We are on an important quest. The people in CarCamel are relying on us.”
“Bind and gag them,” the dwarf ordered, ignoring Kaplyn. “Free their horses. We dwarves prefer to walk!” Strong hands grabbed Kaplyn, nearly lifting him from the grass as his hands were bound behind his back. A coarse cloth was pushed into his mouth. He could hardly breathe; inwardly he cursed.
Some of the dwarves tried to rouse Tumarl, shaking him until he came around and then setting him on his feet where he swayed alarmingly. Then the fire was doused, plunging them back into darkness.
With dwarves flanking them, they set off into the night. Occasionally, Kaplyn stumbled and each time strong hands prevented him from falling, but there was little compassion in their grip and swiftly he was herded on. He tried to remember what he knew about the dwarves, but his knowledge was scant. For many generations contact had been lost between the races, partly due to the remoteness of Thandor, the dwarves’ ancestral home.
Much later the column stopped, and an outflanking scout appeared from out of the darkness by Kaplyn’s side, making his way to the head of the column. The prisoners were forced to lie down on the damp ground. The rest of the dwarves crouched where they had stood.
After a moment longer a party of about ten dwarves left the column, swiftly blending into the night. Kaplyn listened but could hear nothing and then the silence was shattered by hoarse cries of alarm.
Krell voices, Kaplyn realised fearfully.
Abruptly silence returned and, within moments, a dwarf returned for the prisoners and their escort, ordering them forward. They entered a deep hollow within which Kaplyn saw several shapes which he initially mistook to be boulders. He soon realised his mistake. Small bolts from the dwarves crossbows protruded from the shapes, which he now realised were krell bodies. Some lay on the rim of the hollow where they had been killed, trying to escape. A krell lay close to Kaplyn and he stared at it in revulsion. It looked gaunt, as though it had not eaten for some time, and its clothes were rags.
They didn’t stop and were led out the other side of the hollow. Kaplyn felt a sudden urge to look up, and then heard soft flapping of wings overhead. One of his captors pushed him in the back. Kaplyn planted his feet firmly, and desperately tried to nod in the direction of the sounds, hoping the look of fear in his eyes would be sufficient warning.
The guard pushed him harder, forcing him on.
A bolt of blue light streaked down from the heavens catching Kaplyn’s guard full in the chest and narrowly missing Kaplyn. The dwarf was thrown back by the blast, and Kaplyn hurled himself to the ground whilst all around him pandemonium broke out. A second and a third bolt followed, accompanied by loud explosions.
Kaplyn crawled to the dwarf’s body and found that, in his death grip, he was still clutching his axe. He rolled onto his back and felt for the sharp blade with his hands. As bright lights danced before his eyes, he sawed at his bonds which swiftly parted. With relief he pulled the gag from his mouth and, scooping up the dead dwarf’s axe, ran to find his friends.
The flapping of wings was more obvious now and a shrill scream of rage split the night air. Kaplyn knew that a grakyn had found them. The dwarves were busy returning fire, and several crossbow bolts streaked skyward in the vain hope that they might hit it. More explosions shook the ground as the grakyn continued its attack.
Kaplyn realised it was futile trying to find the others in the ensuing pandemonium. Crouching on one knee, he concentrated on the flapping of the grakyn’s wings with the intention of throwing his axe, but the dwarves’ shouts and the explosions confused him. He gripped the axe and was preparing to make a desperate throw when a ghostly spectre materialised from the darkness by his side. His immediate thought was that a demon had found them, but then he recognised Lomar, or at least his shaol. None of the dwarves close to Kaplyn seemed able to see the spectre.
Another explosion erupted, killing another dwarf whose body hit the earth with a sickening thud; his skull cap rolled from his head and came to a halt a few feet from the body. Lomar’s shade frowned down on Kaplyn uncertainly, and, for a moment, Kaplyn sensed that the albino was looking at something by, or close to his side. So convinced was Kaplyn that something must be there that he, too, glanced by his side, but there was nothing there.
“What is it?” Kaplyn asked, turning to face Lomar’s shaol.
“I thought I saw something by your side,” Lomar answered. “I must have been mistaken.”
Kaplyn sensed that Lomar was still troubled by what he had imagined, but given their present dilemma he dismissed the incident.
“Kaplyn, I can see the grakyn,” Lomar stated. “With my help you might be able to kill it.”
Kaplyn nodded and Lomar floated close to his side and pointed into the sky over Kaplyn’s shoulder.
“Throw along my point of aim when I tell you to.”
Kaplyn drew back the heavy axe and waited.
“Now,” the albino shouted all at once. Kaplyn hurled the axe with all his strength and the weapon flew into the sky, unintentionally spinning end over end as it went.
A cry of pain followed and a few heartbeats later, a dark shape hit the ground only a few yards from Kaplyn, bouncing on the hard earth. The grakyn stirred and tried to rise, but shadowy shapes arose around it and axes descended, severing the neck and splitting its wings before the creature had time to recover.
Kaplyn was immediately surrounded by dwarves, their weapons raised, but there was no menace in their eyes. Kaplyn rose, spreading his arms wide, making it clear he was unarmed. Glancing around, to his relief, Lomar’s shade had disappeared.
The dwarf, he assumed to be their leader, came over to him.
“He brought down the grakyn with an axe throw I would have been proud of,” one of the dwarves standing by Kaplyn’s side stated by way of explanation. The leader nodded and looked back at the grakyn’s body, its black skin glistened oily in the faint light.
“Untie them,” the dwarf said. “You will come with us. You will not be bound again unless you attempt to escape.”
Kaplyn agreed as Lars, Lomar and Tumarl were herded from the surrounding darkness. Tumarl was rubbing his wrists, trying to get the circulation back. His eyes blazed angrily, but, for the moment, he held his frustration in check. When he saw the grakyn’s corpse, his gaze fixed on the body as though feeding his hatred.
“I have agreed we will accompany the dwarves to their home,” Kaplyn explained to the others who nodded, although their eyes reflected uncertainty.
The dwarves took stock of their situation. In all three were dead and two badly burned. Quickly, the column was formed and, without delay, they set off; the dwarves carrying the dead and wounded as though their bodies were no heavier than their axes.
Lomar reflected on his out of body experience. It chilled him for he had never done this before whilst awake. It was the urgency of the situation that had forced him to consider the possibility. He had concentrated hard, seeking the elusive link with his shaol, his guardian spirit, and almost as soon as he did so, he had felt his spirit slip from his body, abruptly finding himself by Kaplyn’s side.
At the time he had been convinced that something was standing beside Kaplyn. Something indistinct, like the ghost of a man. He had seen other people’s shaols before, but they had always looked vague, more akin to an indistinct fog. This time the shaol had looked as real as Kaplyn although it had shimmered in and out of view as though his presence in this world was tenuous.
The spirit’s attire was bizarre, unlike anything Lomar had seen before. An ornate breastplate covered a bright tunic, flaring excessively at the wrists with cuffs decorated with gold thread. He wore long riding boots and baggy trousers, tucked into the tops of his boots. A dagger and several pouches had hung from a thin belt. His hair was long and fine and he wore a tall conical helm, ornately wrought with fine carvings. The spectre’s gaze was intense and his eyes penetrating. His bearded face had been long and angular, and his look almost regal, but his eyes suggested an intense cruelty that had caused Lomar to hold his breath.
As he had studied the figure, he had realised that it, too, was studying him. That came as a shock. But then the figure had flickered from view as though it had never really existed. Lomar had been left looking bewildered upon Kaplyn before he had remembered the grakyn. Now, as they walked in the complete darkness of a moonless night, Lomar glanced back at Kaplyn who was walking mechanically with weariness reflected in his eyes. There was no sign of the spectre by his side, although Lomar somehow knew he would not see it unless his own spirit travelled on the astral plane.
He turned his attention back to the column ahead. Should he tell Kaplyn what he had seen? That was his dilemma, for he doubted Kaplyn would believe him. He had a premonition that worse was yet to come. As he walked, he pondered upon why he could only see Kaplyn’s and the priests’ shaols, sensing an urgent need to solve that riddle.
They walked for the remainder of the night and, at the first signs of dawn, the column took shelter in a small wood. As soon as they were settled, the leader of the dwarves approached Kaplyn.
“I’m Thaneck,” he said holding out a hand.
“Kaplyn,” he replied taking the dwarf’s hand in a firm handshake.
“Why are you travelling in our lands?”
“We have come from CarCamel. Recently there was a battle against an army we believe was sent by Trosgarth. The krell you slew last night were probably remnants from that army, trying to return to their homes.
“We are going to Drishnack, the Aldracian capital, to find out how large their army really is.” Kaplyn continued. He refrained from mentioning that he was drawn to Drishnack by a vision of Vastra, now an old man, captive in a golden cage. Vastra was a sorcerer, as he had always insisted, who had led the group when they had searched to discover the fate of the Eldric so long ago. Vastra had betrayed them after taking a crystallised fruit they had found hanging from a fossilised tree deep in the heart of BanKildor, one of the tallest mountains in the PenAmPeleas range. Kaplyn bore the remains of another crystal, now a crystalline scar embedded in his chest. Inadvertently, his hand had strayed to it and absently he rubbed it beneath his shirt. How he had got the scar he did not know, but suspected Vastra was to blame.
Kaplyn feared if Vastra’s crystal fell into enemy hands, the enemy would be able to open a permanent passage to the demon world. The thought made him shudder. He was nervous enough having told only half the truth, but he held the dwarf’s steady gaze, hoping that his deceit would not be discovered; the scar on his chest itched uncomfortably as though it, too, was part of the lie.
“You and your friends look nothing like Aldracians,” the dwarf snorted, eyeing particularly Lars and Lomar. “Put one foot in Aldrace and you will be arrested.”
Kaplyn smiled, knowing that the dwarf spoke truthfully. Neither Lomar nor Lars could ever hope to enter the enemy city, both were markedly different to the other races: Lomar with his white complexion and hair, and Lars with his blond hair and sheer size.
“It’s a problem we have yet to solve,” Kaplyn admitted.
“And how do you intend getting through KinKassack? That forest will eat you up and spit you out.”
Kaplyn had not formulated a plan and was embarrassed by the dwarf’s questions. “Tumarl has travelled through KinKassack or part of it, at least.”
Tumarl’s gaze never faltered even though this was the first mention of the fact they would travel through the forest that had so nearly killed him.
The dwarf looked at Tumarl in disbelief. “That’s impossible,” he said “KinKassack is evil. No one could pass through it. It’s an unholy place; krell and trolls live there and even the trees are evil. Namlwyn tried, he was my friend. He took with him over a hundred dwarves, intending to cut a passage to Thandor, our ancestral home. Neither he nor his men were heard of again.”
“We live in dark times,” Kaplyn agreed.
“Your tale suggests we need to make haste,” Thaneck decided. “Do you have a head for heights?” he continued with an impish grin. Behind Kaplyn, Lars groaned which only served to broaden the dwarf’s smile. With that he walked off towards his fellows who had gathered together a short distance away.
“What did he mean by that?” Lars asked uncertainly.
“I don’t know,” Kaplyn answered, also concerned by the dwarf’s glib statement.
Thaneck spoke to another dwarf who removed an object from his pack before walking to a tall tree, which he commenced to climb. He shuffled on to a large branch high above the ground where he unwound a length of cord at the end of which dangled a small object. Slowly at first, he swung the wood in a circle by his side, and a low eerie whistling started which gradually grew in intensity as he increased its speed, alternately increasing and decreasing in pitch as it sailed through the air.
Kaplyn and the others felt uneasy and they glanced about the treetops. Thaneck approached and, seeing their apprehension, grinned wolfishly. “Do not fear, we are merely calling to our steeds. You might have heard of them dristal?”
Kaplyn remembered the name from childhood tales. “I thought they were a myth.”
The dwarf shook his head. “Many dristal live in the mountains of our homeland, but their numbers are dwindling,” the dwarf said. “They are difficult to catch and even harder to train, so we rear them from hatchlings.”
“What is a dristal?” Tumarl asked. As though in reply to his question, a plaintive cry echoed through the wood, causing everyone to look up.
“Come and you will soon find out,” Thaneck said, leading them to the edge of the wood. In the distance they could see several small specks against a dark and forbidding sky. As they watched, the shapes grew in size until they could clearly see giant wings beating against the chill air. Tumarl sucked in his breath in awe.
They were gigantic birds of prey, very similar to an eagle, but much larger. The first alighted gracefully on a small grassy knoll not far from the wood. Its talons were huge and Lars could not help but stare uncertainly at the massive birds. A dwarf ran out to greet the dristal, running his hand through its neck feathers.
“No!” Lars said. “There’s absolutely no way that I’m going to ride one of those. If Valra had meant us to fly, he would not have asked Kantral to give us legs.”
“Valra?” Kaplyn asked.
“The god of the air,” Lars pronounced, making a sweeping gesture with his arm.
“I agree,” Lomar said. “They look like they would rather eat us than carry us.”
“It’s the dristal or KinKassack,” Kaplyn said.
Tumarl grimaced. “I’ll take my chance with the dristal,” he said. “Besides, dwarves ride them and survive.”
“Maybe the dwarves taste bad,” Lars said, his eyes wide with fear.
They watched as the dwarves unloaded some of their heavy packs. They then unrolled leather saddles that looked too fragile to support them. A short while later, six dristal were ready for the dwarves to ride. Each bird now wore a double saddle and harness.
“A dristal normally carries two dwarves,” Thaneck explained, re-
Behind him, five dwarves mounted the giant birds and adjusted the flying harnesses. Clearly, the bulk of the patrol was remaining where they were. Thaneck led them towards the great birds. “Do not worry about your supplies, I have asked Delbarl to follow us.” A dwarf standing by Thaneck’s side bowed low to Kaplyn at the mention of his name.
Kaplyn thanked him and then approached the foremost bird, eyeing it warily. Thaneck mounted first, making it look easy. Kaplyn found a stirrup and put a foot in it and, taking Thaneck’s proffered hand, he climbed up. Once on the bird’s back he grinned down at his companions, but no one returned his smile.
“Valra,” Lars said solemnly. “Hear my prayer and do not let this bird fall from the sky. And, if you are listening, do not let it eat your servant.”
Kaplyn smiled. The stories that he had heard about Lars’ gods suggested they were likely to ignore the big man’s prayers in any event. Lars mounted and sat on his dristal looking completely miserable. The others also mounted and, without waiting, the great birds launched themselves into the sky. They were much slower and less graceful than the dragon Kaplyn had ridden and he, at least, felt at ease.
He looked down at the ground far below and watched as the small wood receded into the distance. Glancing around at his companions, he saw that they were coping, although Lars’ eyes were tightly shut. Tumarl had overcome his fear and was looking around wide eyed with curiosity whilst Lomar sat erect, seeming indifferent to the experience.
Flying only served to remind Kaplyn about his dragon flight and recurring nightmares. Thinking about them now, he realised that he did not even know how he had actually summoned the dragon. He cast his mind back to the rooftop in CarCamel with the smoke of battle partially obscuring the breach in the wall and the enemy flooding through. He had raised his sword and for a moment the runes on the blade had seemed to dance, unless it had been a trick of the light. To his surprise the dragon had not appeared evil as in the dreams, and yet a voice within his mind seemed to urge him not to trust it.
After the battle, he had been asked to lead an army against Trosgarth, riding on a dragon at the army’s head. Kaplyn could not explain his concerns but the prospect had terrified him. That was one reason why he had left the city; the other was Vastra. Thinking about him made him angry. If it was not for him, Kaplyn would have returned to his family and perhaps could have saved them.
Abruptly he noticed a mountain range looming up on their right and was distracted from his melancholy by the mountain’s bleak magnificence. Each peak rose sharply into the sky whilst rocky crags plunged steeply into deep valleys. Unlike other mountains he had seen, these were bare and forlorn, being mainly rock; nothing seemed to grow on their sheer slopes. Each summit they flew over seemed to be more perilous than the last, and vast screes marked ancient rock falls.
Kaplyn was riding with Thaneck and, throughout the journey, the dwarf had remained silent. Now he pointed down and shouted above the noise of the wind. “Kaldor,” he said simply.
Kaplyn looked where he was pointing. Below was a narrow plateau. Three sides of the plateau were surrounded by cliffs. On the fourth side, the mountain rose sheer, disappearing high in the sky, wreathed in sombre looking clouds. Small, dark openings in the mountain marked windows and doors overlooking the plateau and Kaplyn guessed that this was a city. To Kaplyn the rock walls were dark and gloomy, but Thaneck beamed down at the city with obvious pride.
The dristal spread their wings and spiralled down toward the high walls and, as Kaplyn’s stomach lurched at the sudden descent, he suppressed a growing feeling of dread.
Guided by their riders, the dristal spiralled down in a tight arc, aiming towards the plateau within the high walls. Below, small figures scurried about, clearing a landing space for the incoming flight. In the last few seconds of their descent, the ground suddenly seemed to speed up towards them, causing the inexperienced passengers to recoil in fear. However, with only a slight jar, the great birds alighted, folding their wings beneath their bodies and cocking their heads as though awaiting further orders.
The riders climbed down, the dwarves descending nimbly with their passengers following as best they could. Lars staggered towards Kaplyn, looking unsteady as though his legs were unaccustomed to the motionless ground. Even still, he was smiling broadly and had a look of wonder in his eyes. Tumarl also seemed visibly moved by his experience and even managed a rare smile. Lomar’s bird alighted last of all and he joined the others His pale complexion and scarlet eyes made his expression uncertain so that Kaplyn could not decide how the journey had affected him.
A knot of excited dwarves formed around the four men. Many carried weapons although at the moment they seemed more curious than threatening. Kaplyn realised the dwarves probably had little contact with the outside races.
Thaneck spoke briefly to the crowd, assuring them that the strangers were friends. With reluctance their ranks parted, allowing Thaneck to lead the small band towards a large portal set beneath an embellished stone archway. Small globes, set at intervals, faintly illuminated the passage.
“I recognise these,” Lomar said, walking over to one of the globes. “Look, they shine like the cavern walls we saw in BanKildor. You remember, the walls glowed just like these lamps.”
Thaneck smiled. “Inside the glass, lichen feeds on damp and minerals within the rock, and as a result emits light.”
The tunnel was broad and beautifully shaped and the walls shone like mirrors. Tall carvings depicted all manner of landscapes, and Kaplyn was surprised by the abundant forest scenes. Shortly afterwards the passageway changed and the carvings were replaced by colourful tapestries and huge plants in tall clay vases.
“These plants are the only flora that will grow in these conditions,” Thaneck explained.
They passed by a few dwarves, but far fewer than Kaplyn expected for such a large habitat. Then Thaneck led them up some winding stairs, at the top of which they entered another tunnel, heading which way they could not tell.
“Here we are,” Thaneck declared at length. “I think this part of the city will be most suitable to your tastes.” Daylight filtered through tall windows hewn in the rock face. “Come, I’ll show you the view,” he offered.
Thaneck opened a wooden doorway; drawing back a heavy bolt rusted with age, and went out onto a balcony surrounded by a stone battlement. They ascended a stone stair to the parapet. Looking over the wall, Kaplyn was astounded by the scene before them. They were high up on a cliff-
“When we first came here there was no need for a defensive wall since the forest served to protect us,” Thaneck explained sadly. “However, over a few generations, a cancer has spread and the forest is now a dark and malevolent place where not even the dwarves dare to go. It is a great shame, for, although we love our caverns, we also love forests, but this one has become tainted...”
“It is KinKassack,” Tumarl stated flatly. His breath was short and his eyes wide as he surveyed the place that had very nearly become his grave.
Kaplyn, Lars and Lomar each looked shocked by Tumarl’s statement.
“I had not realised we were so close,” Kaplyn said in a hushed voice as though afraid the forest might hear.
“Over the past few years there have been several attacks by grakyn,” Thaneck continued as though he had not heard Kaplyn. “We have to be careful and seldom venture far from the city. Even here on the battlements it is no longer safe. Fortunately, in daylight, we can see an attack coming. The grakyn have also learnt to respect our dristal patrols.”
Thaneck saw their looks of concern as they glanced uneasily skyward. “Come, you must be tired. It was a long night—let me take you to your quarters.”
With that the dwarf left the narrow battlement and, descending the stair, led them through the doorway into the city once more. Thaneck shut and bolted the door and escorted them along the corridor, turning off the main tunnel into a smaller side passage. He entered a house cut into the rock. The first room they entered was large and furnished with several comfortable-
“Make yourselves at home,” Thaneck said. “I have to report to the King. Eat and then rest; I will return early this evening.”
They thanked the dwarf who promptly left. Lars poured four goblets of wine and then selected some fruit. Kaplyn and Lomar looked about the room, enjoying the tapestries and marvelling at the craftsmanship of the furniture.
“They have not returned our weapons,” Tumarl noted bleakly.
“Don’t worry,” Kaplyn replied. “I am sure that they mean no harm and, besides, there is no guard.”
“Where would we escape to anyway?” Lomar said, picking up his wine and warming his hands. “You saw the forest.”
“Well I for one am tired,” Kaplyn admitted. However, the seed of doubt Tumarl had sown was now causing him concern. “Let’s sleep for now and we will see what happens later.”
They were woken some time later by Thaneck, accompanied by several heavily armoured dwarves. At first Kaplyn thought they were in danger, but the dwarves returned their weapons, although they asked them to leave them in the room until after their audience with the King.
Kaplyn checked the sword was his and as he drew it there was no mistaking the dark metal and the flowing inscription. Satisfied, he re-
They entered a long hall, stretching far into the distance. A thick carpet softened their footsteps, and a faint smell of burning oil filled the room from the many torches that hung in iron brackets. Beneath rich tapestries, guards stood to attention, each holding a tall axe
The King sat on a throne at the far end of the hall. He was an imposing figure. His clothes reflected great wealth; gold thread decorated the collar and cuffs of his scarlet robe of state and pearls were sewn around the lapels. A fur stole was wrapped about his shoulders and he held a stout gold mace in his ancient hands. However the King looked far from content. His shoulders sagged and his eyes harboured a terrible sadness.
“Sire,” Thaneck said, bowing low as he came before the throne. “These are our guests.”
Kaplyn and the others bowed respectfully.
Thaneck turned to the small group. “May I introduce King Elador, Monarch of Kaldor and the dwarven kingdom east of the Mountains of Mist. It is our custom for newcomers to announce themselves so that all might hear their voices and know that they come in peace.”
“I am Kaplyn, King of Allund,” Kaplyn announced, stepping forward. He had not acknowledged his title before but after the battle of CarCamel he had become accustomed to the fact that his family was gone and the title was his. Now he must bear it with pride.
Lomar stepped forward and bowed. “I am Prince Lomar, an Alvalan from Gilfillan,” he said softly. There was a dispute over his title at present. Otherwise he, too, could claim to be the monarch of his people.
Lars was next. The big man stepped forward uncertainly. “Lars,” he said, “Glan-
Tumarl looked uncertain as to what he should say and then he stepped forward blushing. “Tumarl, a farmer from Thrace.”
“You travel in high company,” King Elador said after a moment’s pause. “If I had known I had such exalted guests you would have been quartered in the royal wing.
“You and your companions have my thanks for helping my people when the grakyn attacked. Thaneck has told me of your mission and we shall not prevent you from entering Aldrace. Indeed, I offer you our help and hope that, after a rest, we will be able to speed you on your journey.
“I was aware of the army from Trosgarth as it marched south to attack your lands,” he continued less certainly. “As you can see around you,” the old monarch said, sweeping his arm about the hall, “my people are few and we could not help against the full force of Trosgarth. However, I am relieved to find that the enemy was defeated. Be assured that we have done much to ensure that as few krell as possible have managed to return home.”
“Your Highness is gracious,” Kaplyn said bowing. “I am sure that the people of Thrace will send an envoy to thank you personally when they hear of your help.”
The King smiled as though, for the moment at least, his cares were fewer. “I have something I would like to show you.” His mood seemed to lift as he rose and motioned for Kaplyn and the others to follow.
Several guards left their posts to follow behind. The group left through a narrow door concealed by tapestries hanging behind the throne and followed a tunnel that plunged steeply down into the heart of the mountain.
After a short while they came to a small, circular chamber with an altar at its centre where four fully armoured dwarves solemnly stood guard. Upon the altar rested a suit of armour, held upright by a golden cross. Glow globes were positioned around the armour and their faint light reflected from the interlocking plates. This was unlike any armour Kaplyn had seen before.
“Dragon scales,” Kaplyn announced incredulously. His eyes shone brightly as he strode over to the armour. “This must be Hanet’s armour. He was the dwarf king who fought at DrummondCal, helping Darwyl and the Eldric to defeat Drachar.”
“A long time ago,” the monarch nodded sagely. “Much has happened since then and not all good—we have lost Hanet’s axe.”
Kaplyn realised then that the armoured gauntlets held in front of the dragon armour were set in such a position that the haft of an axe could be slipped inside them.
“That was the axe given to the dwarves by the Eldric?” Kaplyn asked.
“Yes,” the King acknowledged. “It was lost long ago. Once, this was a thriving city with dwarf children aplenty, running about the caverns and causing mischief a city to be compared with Thandor, from which my people fled so long ago and which is forbidden to us. Now our city is quiet. It is as if some curse has been cast against us.”
The King looked sad as he continued. “Thandor has now become but a dream. That is a terrible burden for our people. Perhaps that is why our numbers dwindle. I, like many others, long to see our ancient home. We have sent several emissaries there, seeking pardon for our people, but none have returned. I do not think that it is purely the evil of KinKassack that keeps our homeland hidden from us. I believe a greater evil is at work.
“It is partly due to our own folly after the Krell Wars. We assumed Drachar was gone completely from this world, and we relaxed our vigil on our borders, concentrating instead on finding gold and other wealth. Before our people left Thandor, we were content, and then a rumour sprang up that if we dug deep enough we would find Tel-
“What is Tel-
The King’s eyes shone. “Nythryn is a jewel unsurpassed by any other, the greatest treasure of the dwarves. Our legends tell us that the Kalanth hid Nythryn deep in the mountains, knowing that we would find it one day. Everywhere we dug, and yet we found only gold and diamonds. These we ignored, so great was our desire to find Nythryn. Can you imagine? A dwarf—ignoring gold,” Elador said, looking at Kaplyn.
Kaplyn nodded, allowing the King to continue. “One day we found an especially long vein of gold. It was as though it was placed there to guide us. For long days my people laboured to reach its heart. It was then that we discovered our bane.” The King hung his head. “We found a jewel beyond compare and its beauty was immeasurable. And yet a cold green light shone from its heart. We knew it was not Nythryn for green is associated with the demon world. But even still, it was like looking upon heaven.
“At first it was set in the market place where everyone could see it. It was named Tel-
“The king at the time was Nynvanar, a good and noble monarch directly descended from Hanet himself. He tried his best to stop the war, calling on the dwarves to lay down their arms. But a great hatred had taken hold of their hearts and a deep desire to see Talwyn drove them onwards so that no one would stop to listen to reason.
“Unfortunately Wynthren, the noble who had stolen Talwyn, was very powerful and had allegiances in other dwarf kingdoms who rallied to his call for help.
“King Nynvanar was left with no choice but to take sides and end the conflict. Otherwise his kingdom would be divided forever. At the head of a great army, he laid siege to Wynthren’s fortified home. Seeing the King in full dragon armour and carrying Hanet’s axe, Wynthren knew that his forces could not hold out for long. One night he disguised himself, and, carrying Talwyn, he escaped his fortress and went unrecognised through the surrounding army. Wynthren left Thandor and set off across country, hoping to meet with dwarves he had summoned from the Southern Kingdoms.
“With their leader gone, Wynthren’s followers laid down their arms and sued for pardon. The King, in a rage, ordered these dwarves exiled. With a large army the King immediately went in pursuit of Wynthren.
“It was said that Wynthren made his way into KinKassack, which at this time was still a wholesome place. The King’s army was hot in pursuit when an army of krell and grakyn attacked. It was a well-
“Even though many dwarves were killed, it looked as though they would be able to hold and eventually turn the tide of battle. At that moment, a new force arrived from Trosgarth, led by death knights.”
“Death Knights?” Kaplyn queried, “I have never heard of them before, not even in legends.”
The old King nodded. “Neither had we. It was a new enemy from Trosgarth. I do not understand what evil managed to create such a being, but they were a terrible foe who could only be banished from this world by chance. Apparently iron through the heart killed them, but few managed to deliver a mortal blow, especially since they were armoured. My father, a cousin to Nynvanar who was at the battle, told me of this horror.”
Kaplyn had forgotten that the dwarves lived much longer than the other races and was shocked to think that Elador had a first hand account of a battle so long ago. He realised that the old dwarf was speaking once more and he listened to the tale.
“The death knights proved too strong for the dwarf army and few could face them. Nynvanar himself fought their leader, a dark knight called Straum. They fought for a long time, but Straum could not be wearied and only one blow could kill him. Nynvanar’s dragon armour turned even Straum’s evil blade whilst the axe of Hanet clove the death knight’s armour. But the death knight was also a sorcerer and, as Nynvanar weakened, Straum summoned the dead; unseen hands wrenched the ancient weapon from Nynvanar’s grasp, leaving the dwarf King defenceless. Any other magic would not have worked on Nynvanar because of his dragon armour, but the dead Straum had summoned were tangible beings, and they held the King while Straum lifted a plate of the dragon armour and thrust his immortal blade deep into the King’s heart.
“The dwarves were lost then. Many sought to escape, carrying the King’s lifeless body with them. They went into KinKassack, forsaking their comrades who were butchered to the last. Hanet’s axe was lost, but the dragon armour was saved and brought here. This was a minor kingdom, but the arrival of the defeated army swelled its numbers so that in its day this was a thriving city.
“What became of Thandor is not known, nor is the fate of Wynthren and the Talwyn, the stolen jewel. Since then, we have often tried to make contact with Thandor, but no word of the city ever comes back to us and our messengers simply disappear.”
A silence fell over the group. “Have you searched for Hanet’s axe?” Kaplyn asked eventually.
The King nodded, but his look conveyed his doubts that it would ever be found again.
“You want us to see if the axe is in Drishnack?” Kaplyn guessed, knowing that the King’s tale was leading somewhere.
The King paused before speaking, knowing that he was perhaps expecting too much. “That was my hope,” he admitted at length, speaking softly.
“What does the weapon look like?” Kaplyn asked. “I mean, how do we distinguish it from other axes?”
“It was an Eldric weapon. The metal is black and there are fine silver runes inlaid into its surface, very like your sword. Your pardon,” he continued, “I took the liberty of looking at the weapon whilst you slept.”
Kaplyn did not mind and he told the King so. Smiling, and somewhat relieved, the old King escorted them from the chamber and they retraced their way back to the throne room where Thaneck took his leave of his monarch and escorted Kaplyn and the others back to their room.
That night Kaplyn lay awake, unable to sleep. He dreaded the dragon dreams that haunted his sleep and instead refused to succumb to weariness. In the dead of night, frustrated by the lack of sleep, he swung his legs out of his bed and dressed hurriedly leaving their house. It was late and few dwarves were about; those who were gave him peculiar sideways looks as he went by.
He had no idea where he was going. He only knew that he did not want to dream about dragons. After a short while, he found himself in a dark, narrow passage that descended steeply. His heart was racing although he did not know why.
“Why are you not abed?” a voice asked from behind.
Turning, Kaplyn saw Thaneck. The dwarf looked concerned, perhaps worried that Kaplyn had betrayed his confidence. “I could not sleep,” Kaplyn replied. His attention returned to the tunnel in front of him. “Where does this lead?” A strange sensation swept over him; he felt he knew this place.
“It’s a dead end. Our people started to excavate it but, when our numbers dwindled, there was no further need.”
Kaplyn started down the tunnel. Thaneck took a nearby glow globe and followed, calling to Kaplyn to return. The dwarf caught up with him only a short way ahead, standing in the tunnel, a strange expression on his face.
“Fetch others,” Kaplyn commanded. “Bring digging tools.”
“Just do as I say, trust me.”
Thaneck frowned, but sensed the excitement in Kaplyn’s voice. Turning, he returned along the tunnel, leaving the glow globe by Kaplyn’s feet.
Kaplyn could not explain his feeling. The scar on his chest started to itch furiously. Unbuttoning his shirt his scar was radiating a strong white light akin to the time he had ridden the dragon.
The dwarves were coming and so he hurriedly buttoned his shirt. Behind the dwarves came Thaneck. All were burdened with digging tools although they stood staring uncertainly at Kaplyn as though he had lost his mind.
“Dig here,” he said.
“Why?” one of the dwarves grumbled. The others looked at Thaneck, waiting for him to confirm the order.
Kaplyn turned to Thaneck. “I do not know why,” he admitted. “It’s merely a feeling that something is here.”
The dwarf looked at Kaplyn but then smiled. “Come,” he said to the others, “Are we not dwarves? Were we not born to dig?” With that he took up a pick and started to attack the cavern floor as though it was a personal enemy. Kaplyn also took up a pick and started to dig alongside him. The others joined in until the cavern rang with the sound of metal on stone.
Kaplyn could not keep up with the dwarves whose endurance kept them going long after he had stopped. His hands ached after digging for so long and yet the dwarves showed no signs of weariness. By now the dwarves were digging in a hole deep enough to stand in and not be seen. Kaplyn was not sure what they were looking for, but a strange feeling of familiarity persisted.
Several times Thaneck glanced towards Kaplyn, his eyes suggested that he hoped Kaplyn knew what he was doing. Just as Kaplyn was beginning to wonder if his senses had betrayed him, a dwarf at the bottom of the hole gave an excited yell. Those not digging crowded around the lip and peered intently into the hole. A large crystal had been partially unearthed and a deep ruby light emanated from it, filling the hollow with its gentle radiance. The dwarves fell silent in respect.
“It’s a kara-
Kaplyn tentatively placed his hand on the stone. The scar upon his chest itched more furiously than before, and he feared that its light might actually shine through his clothing. He knew that he was taking a risk touching the jewel. When he had held Lomar’s kara-
As his hand rested on the orb he was filled with a great sense of wonder. There was no vision this time. Perhaps, if it was the remains of another Kalanth, it had gone too far beyond the world for him to feel its presence. He remembered a name though, and the part of him that had joined with the Kalanth from Lomar’s kara-
The stone was not evil. Of that he was certain.
“We must take this to the King,” Thaneck announced seriously. “It is a wonderful discovery.” Turning to one of the other dwarves, he bid him fetch Kaplyn’s companions. Together the dwarves, led by Thaneck and Kaplyn, headed for the royal apartments, calling on others to awaken as they went. They approached the King’s audience hall with a large excited crowd following. Thaneck held up the kara-
Two dwarves of the royal guard left the hall to summon the King, who returned some moments later, still arranging his robes. “What is it, Thaneck?” he asked.
The dwarf raised the kara-
“Kaplyn,” Thaneck replied.
Lomar, Lars and Tumarl came to stand beside Kaplyn. Their eyes shone with wonder as they looked at the jewel resting in the King’s broad hands.
“It will take time to study and unlock the magic within it,” Lomar continued. “Your Highness, my people would be willing to help you in this task,” he offered, addressing the King.
The King thanked Lomar, welcoming his people’s aid.
“Could I have a look?” Lomar asked. The King handed the stone to Lomar who held it in cupped hands and peered into its depths. He felt the heat within the stone and used this warmth to drive his consciousness within. His experience was different from Kaplyn’s. Lomar peeled back the structure within the orb like lifting the petals from a rose. As Lomar probed, the light within the stone grew until the room was filled with its warmth. The dwarves gasped in awe and a loud cheer sounded about the room.
An immense peacefulness emanated from the jewel and a fresh loamy fragrance of freshly dug earth filled the air. All within the chamber suddenly felt young and vital.
The dwarf King’s eyes shone with pleasure. “This is a magnificent gift you have discovered,” he said addressing Kaplyn, after Thaneck had described how Kaplyn had found it. “We are deeply in your debt. Tonight we will celebrate. It has been a long time since we had a feast worthy of a tale. Let us make this one to remember, for perhaps we have reached a turning point in our history.”
Kaplyn and the others found themselves guests of honour in a large banquet hall. The room was filled with bright flowers, hurriedly gathered that morning from the forest. Kaplyn yawned broadly. He had not slept all night, but the heady atmosphere kept him awake.
The dwarves looked resplendent in their burnished armour, and their beards had been groomed and freshly braided and tucked into large ornately decorated belts, crowded with gold and jewels. Wives or companions accompanied many of the dwarves and they, too, had been meticulous with their preparation. Dwarf women took as much pride in their hair as their men-
All at once the dwarves stood, and Kaplyn and his companions did likewise as a respectful hush descended over the hall. At the head of a long procession, the King entered accompanied by nobles and their ladies, bearing more gold and jewels than Kaplyn had seen in his lifetime.
There was a gasp of awe as the assembled dwarves recognised the dragon armour the King wore. Behind him came a group of dwarves carrying the recently discovered kara-
The King seated himself next to Kaplyn and commanded that the feast commence. There were many courses and the food was both varied and rich. Wine, as cool as a mountain spring, was in abundance and, after tasting it, Lars declared he would never drink ale ever again.
As the meal progressed, the dwarves became more and more boisterous, with songs breaking out at many of the tables. A troop of dwarfish acrobats performed about the tables to great applause. The act was more of a comedy as the dwarves tumbled around the chamber in a series of feats that left Kaplyn and the others stunned. Kaplyn watched amazed as dwarves climbed a tower of precariously placed chairs which promptly collapsed in a heap of wood and bodies much to the approval of the on-
A dwarf carrying an immense axe followed the acrobats and he called on Lars for his aid. From the amount of wine that Lars had consumed, Kaplyn was concerned about his abilities to throw an axe straight. To Kaplyn’s horror, Lars’ target was the dwarf’s wife who was to be punished for some misdemeanour; her hair was to be ritually cut. She stood in front of an upended table and her long plaits were fastened to the wood either side of her.
At this point, Lars had sobered enough to realise what was being asked of him, and he cast worried looks to Kaplyn who shook his head. Lars tried to decline the dwarf’s offer to let him cut his wife’s hair, but the dwarf refused, claiming that it was a great honour he was bestowing on him.
The dwarf bid Lars to continue, handing him the axe and positioning him several yards from the woman. The big man hefted the axe, testing its balance. With a fluid motion, the big man drew his arm back and hurled the axe. With a roar of approval, the axe parted a braid of hair and the dwarfish woman shrieked in frustration; if he had missed she would have been allowed to keep her hair long. Sensibly she held her position as her husband recovered the axe.
A silence descended as Lars took aim for his second throw. The axe parted the second braid and a great roar split the air once more. Several flagons of wine were thrust towards the big man who sagged with relief as the woman fled in tears. Dwarves patted the big man on the back and he stood grinning at the assembled throng.
It was much later, when the festivities started to die down, that Kaplyn and the others finally managed to take their leave. Tumarl was in a black mood and the festivities had seemed to have fuelled his despair. Kaplyn and Lars tried to cheer him, but nothing they said seemed to help. Tumarl’s depression served to remind Kaplyn that they had to continue their journey and it was with a heavy heart that he lay down to sleep.