James heard the sounds before he looked. They were close and he imagined that he could actually feel the breath of wicked monsters along the nape of his neck. Powerful howls forced him to close off his ear canals. He’d heard them in the distance moments before, but now they were immediately behind. There were screeches unlike the Nu’thri, like children screaming at that unnaturally high pitch, inhuman. Then there was the sound of the Nu’thri, screeching in protest somewhere farther behind.
Then he looked, chancing that brief moment when the trek ahead seemed without obstacles. His heart leapt into his throat, his stomach too, and he gulped frantically to push them down. The beats of his heart became wild with fear and terror. His skin crawled with goose bumps and every hair on his body, except the ones on his head that were far too heavy to move, stood up at attention, while his pupils became narrow like lifeless circles embedded in his skull.
The creatures that followed were far removed from being human, yet at the same time they bore disturbingly human characteristics. The three beasts in the lead of the pack were wolves, but not ordinary wolves. They were larger than any man James had ever seen with obvious muscles flexing and rippling down their flanks. They ran on all fours, but hobbled on their two front legs as if they could run on both two and four legs. Long snouts, enshrouded with thick, oily, silver fur met with jaws filled with sharp yellow teeth, monstrous in every way. Spittle dribbled from their lips and their eyes were unnaturally blue as if they were dead. The fur ran all the way down their flanks to stretched, bushy tails; claws dug deep into the earth with each movement and their snarls filtered through the air of other sounds. James knew immediately that these were werewolves.
The landscape rushed by as he rode, the soft ashen earth bursting alive at each hoof beat. Iliad led him one way, and then another, winding around small fires that thrust new ash and black smoke into the air, flames lost in the dark and only noticeable by the sounds and the continuing motion of new burned material. The air became suddenly warmer as Iliad led on. When James took in his surroundings again he saw massive fires burning everywhere—a hot spot. The flames were visible and rose up into the sky like hungry fingers. The sounds were deafening, so much so that he could hardly hear the sound of his own steed plowing along.
Howls came again from the rear. He peered once more, saw the beasts, and turned back. Fear engulfed him. They were going to catch up, there was no doubt in his mind. The steeds were fast, but not fast enough.
Mirdur’eth turned sharp right, following Iliad, and then sharp left, and back again. They wound around a huge flame, the heat causing a sudden tinge of pain on James’ face. He leaned away and then they were away from it.
Then all stopped. On both sides of them were flames and molten ash festering in tiny pools. Ahead the flat ground abruptly gave way to a tall cliff face too steep and high for anyone to climb. The cliff was obsidian all the way up, dark and shimmering with the light from the fires. James turned Mirdur’eth, catching Iliad’s eye and seeing the panic in the man’s face. He saw Pea and Darl too—sweat trickling down to their chins—and Triska with her soft, motherly complexion turned into a dirty and stern parody of her former self.
He knew instantly that they were trapped, even as he turned and beckoned Mirdur’eth to gallop in the opposite direction. The werewolves were there first, waltzing out of the shadows and black plumes with wicked grins upon their faces, if such a thing were possible. Heads low, mouths frothing with anticipation, they ambled forward and covered the only escape route, spreading out across the small expanse of open space. Their eyes gleamed with the flickers of orange flame, turning their unnaturally blue eyes into sinister moons reddened by the path of the sun. Each were entirely the same, no distinguishing marks whatsoever. Yet it was the one in the middle that seemed to lead as it took a few steps and let out a mighty howl, leaning its head back as it did so. A moment later and the other two followed suit.
“Dismount,” Darl said.
“Why?” Iliad clung to the reigns as if they were his only hope of survival.
“Werewolves have no regard for other living things. They’ll kill the horses and Blaersteeds without thinking twice. A meal is a meal to them.”
Iliad seemed to concede, moving his gaze from Darl to James, and then to the three werewolves, now pacing back and forth as if contemplating the best action to take next.
“At least we have magic on our side,” James said with a fake grin, then hopped off of Mirdur’eth.
“Not really,” Pea said, dismounting. “Werewolves are resistant.”
“And cunning.” Darl drew James’ sword for him, handing the hilt over. “A scratch can be healed, but if any of you are bitten after this is over I will not hesitate to kill you.”
Pea grimaced. “I thought you would say something of that nature. The feeling is all too mutual my grumpy friend.”
James lifted his blade, feeling the weight. It felt no different in his hands than it had days ago, yet doubt in his abilities appeared in his mind and stuck. The corrupted Masters were easy, he thought. They had no physical weapons, just hands and teeth. This is different. Too different.
I’m not ready.
Magic flowed like a river next to him; Pea and Triska were pulling it up from the woodworks. Then he too tugged at the magic within him, and his Fearl. For a brief moment he forgot, having not used it in days, then it all came back to him and he found himself channeling huge portions to his hands. Iliad appeared beside him, bow drawn.
“Wait for them,” Darl said, sword at the ready, his body shifted at such an angle to allow for maximum motion. “Let them make the first mistake.”
“Remember. They’re resistant. Try to use the environment to your advantage.”
“It’s all dust,” James said.
“Still, it might be good for something.”
James hung on to his magic, feeling it winding through his fingers and wobbling back and forth between his hands. His blade shimmered and sung as if it were being rubbed on its edge by a violin bow. He watched the blade and the strange shimmer. It didn’t glow, but it seemed to have a light of its own that flickered as if sunlight were hitting it. The part that confused him the most was the sound. Even as he moved his hands the singing persisted. Then, he found the connection. His magic was leaving his hands in small amounts, rolling up the edge of the blade and back down again. He didn’t bother stopping the flow. Whatever the reason for it, the blade seemed tuned in to him like a radio to a perfect frequency. The blade looked newer because of the connection as if it were freshly cleaned and sharpened. The others noticed it too, Pea most of all, but neither of them looked at him for more than a brief moment.
Then from the shadows, appearing as black shades, came two strange figures covered in billowing black robes. The cloth flittered in the wind, exposing its mild transparency and giving the air of something neither living nor dead, nor something attached to the physical world. They had no faces and no true limbs, only blanks spaces where those things would be; their motions were fluid and serpentine, gliding through the air, back and forth as if they were swimming. Behind them appeared the Nu’thri with Iliad’s arrow still embedded in its shoulder. Its gleaming face slithered low to the ground and its tongue flicked from tooth to tooth hungrily.
“Those are specters,” Iliad said. “Protect your hearts.”
James thought to say something and then stopped dead as the three werewolves bounded towards them. Their motions were swift, but arduous, as if all their muscle and strength prevented them from moving like a true wolf. Jaws were extended, opened wide to expose pink tongues flecked with blackened skin. The lead werewolf roared and leapt into the air. It launched up with surprising speed and height and came down with claws ready to grab.
Then all three were in the air as the two specters and the Nu’thri came behind cautiously. James sensed magic, but unlike his own and strangely similar to the presence he had felt outside of the barrier. It seemed cautious and made no attempt to invade his mind. Rather it seemed to hover beyond the werewolves, controlled by the shadowy figures there.
James started and came out of his reverie. He didn’t know who had spoken to him, but when he looked up he saw the lead werewolf coming down at him. He instinctually pushed his magic out, imagining it becoming a wall. A transparent curve shot forward and collided with the werewolf, and exploded in a whiff of smoke just as quickly as it had made contact, leaving the werewolf at nearly the same speed as it had been before. He lunged sideways as it came down. One of its claws nipped his side, but he ignored it and tried to roll onto his feet.
“Resistant,” Pea screamed, releasing a torrent of dust particles in the face of one of the other werewolves. It yelped and clawed at its face and only barely managed to dive out of the way as Darl came down on it. The third werewolf cried as an arrow bore into its shoulder, but it didn’t stop.
James faced the lead werewolf. Someone cried out nearby but he didn’t take his eye off of the creature before him. It watched him, breathing heavy breathes and growling at the same time. Then it roared and ran at him, leaping onto its back legs and raising its front limbs like human arms. He raised his sword and prepared for the strike. His mind raced with doubts and fear. Sweat trickled down his face and back, arms and legs. He shivered.
It reared back and swung its arm at him. He cringed for a moment, unsure what to do. Dust suddenly wrenched itself up from the ground and poured into a makeshift wall, solidifying around the werewolf’s arm. It let out a furious howl.
“Fight you stupid boy,” Darl said, bellowing as loud as possible over the howling and roars.
James gulped back his fear. The werewolf pounded on the dust wall. He pulled his sword back and swung with all his might at the giant clawed hand, covered in fur, muscle, and pulsing veins. His sword struck, embedding the blade deep into the bone. A massive scream came from the other side of the wall and then a series of bangs as the werewolf pounded on the dust and tried to yank its arm away. Before he could do anything the wall crumbled like a sand castle and the werewolf tugged him forward and wrenched the blade from its wrist. Dark red blood poured from the wound and dribbled down the edge of his blade. It looked at him indignantly; its cold blue eyes narrowed.
Triska slipped into view, temporarily drawing the werewolf’s attention. She looked haggard as if she had spent the last few moments running around. Her face was a grimace.
Then James sensed her magic. Warmth came over him and washed away the doubts, pushing them into the back of his mind. His shivers dissipated, as did the terror, yet the fear lingered there. Then more magic came and the werewolf roared in protest as its wound opened farther. It clawed at its hand and wrist, further damaging the flesh. Blood came out in rivulets now, streaming down its fur and arm uncontrollably.
James could see the rage in the werewolf’s eyes. It stepped forward and scratched the ground, uplifting dust in his face. He stumbled back as Triska continued her magic; the werewolf backhanded him in the chest. He coughed and flew sideways, landing with a soft thud and sliding several feet. When he opened his eyes he couldn’t see; his vision was blurred and gray. A human yelp sounded close by, a sound he knew came from Triska. Then deep, watery breaths whispered by his ear. His eyes watered. He wiped and opened them. Everything was a blur. He could see figures moving about, things flying through the air, and the unmistakable large shapes of the werewolves. Then he turned towards the breaths. There the two specters moved counterclockwise in the air, surrounding him as the Nu’thri moved closer.
He stumbled back on his hands, pushing himself away, but no matter what he did the two specters stayed close. He saw their faces now, only they weren’t truly faces, but emaciated transparent impressions of faces that looked as though they once existed, yet now were expressionless and featureless—blank slates. Then one reached out to him with hands that had suddenly appeared connected to arms that shifted in and out of vision. He instinctually lurched away and swung his sword haphazardly. The blade glided straight through, causing the arm to simply dissolve and re-grow. It reached farther and farther, aiming for his heart.
James panicked. His mind raced with the desire to run. Fear was there, but no terror, no chaotic thoughts. Something Triska had done to him made him forget how much danger he truly was in. He couldn’t see past the initial fear that he needed to get away. Beyond that his thoughts were blocked.
It suddenly occurred to him that he had let his magic slip away. It no longer graced his hands or flowed through him. His initial terror and the dust in his eyes had forced him to lose concentration. He channeled the energy quickly. The hand came down as he struggled to find the energy again. His heart skipped, or at least he thought it did as terrible pain and then numbness attacked his chest. He tried to cry out, but nothing came from his lips. He felt as though something were gripping his heart, holding it still.
Something materialized in the shadowy cloth of the specter. James looked up as the black tatters of cloth pushed away and a massive ghostly head appeared. Long teeth protruded from its face. They were too long for the specter’s mouth, jutting out half of their length in every direction. It had no eyes, only blank spaces where they should have been. It opened its mouth and hot breath hit him in the face. The stench of death—rotting flesh, blood, decay, and all manner of things rotten—wafted over him and left moisture on his face. Another invisible hand gripped his heart; the second specter was doing the same from behind. Then the specter in front leaned over and James came to the realization that the teeth in its face were undeniable real.
The Fearl glowed bright now, something it had not done in a long time. Magic slipped into his grasp, all of its own accord. He grabbed it and tugged. Strange voices, speaking in snake-like sounds, shouted in his mind. There were too many to count, all speaking in unison.
Lifeless, they said. The heart. Ours. Become one of us. Give in.
James managed a faint yelp as he harnessed the magic. He tried to push the voices out, but couldn’t. His heart skipped again; the hands pulled tighter and his heart rushed faster.
You will not die. Live forever. Become one of us. Live forever as lifeless.
“No!” He managed to scream it as loud as he could as his breathing began to falter. Then the magic ripped through his hands. He couldn’t be sure what he was doing, but pain issued from every inch of his fingers as the magic tore its way out of him. Images flashed in his mind—his images—but he couldn’t make sense of them. Fire, serpents, and walls of black.
Then the earth around him shook. The specters sniffed the air as if they could smell whatever it was that was coming. Before they could move great hands formed out of the dust, rising into the air and gripping the two specters. They screeched an earsplitting sound. The dust hands tightened and relief came to James’ heart as the specters let him go. He saw the apprehension in the Nu’thri’s movements as it leaned back slightly.
James couldn’t control the magic. His hands bled, long gashes lacing every tip, digit, and palm. The two dusty hands leaned forward and then abruptly slammed into the earth. The specters cried as they were crushed into the ground. With each motion his true hands hurt more and more and the gashes reached to his wrists and then his arms. A tremendous scream shot out from beneath the dusty hands, which had covered the two specters, and then the specters were silent—dead as something dead could be. His magic hands rose back up and then popped out of existence, sending ash and dust into the air.
Magic still flowed from his hands despite his best efforts to stop it. He tried to stand; his hands screamed with agonizing pain. The pain slid up his forearms as the gashes tore more and more. Somehow he managed to get to his feet, shakily. Then pain shot through his toes and the ball of his foot and he stumbled over and down to a knee. He looked around in an attempt to get his bearings. One of the werewolves had fallen, a long gaping cut through its throat, and another roared angrily as ash and obsidian shards formed shackles for its wrists and legs. The lead werewolf struggled with six arrows embedded in its chest.
James saw Triska lying in a heap nearby. For a moment he thought she was dead. Then she breathed and shuddered and he let out a sigh of relief. His magic slowed, but it still came out in waves, causing shivers to issue up his arms. The dust and ash around his feet shifted with the pulses.
A strange cloudiness came over him; his mind became disturbingly numb as if he were in shock after being hit in the head. Sound dissipated to murmurs of nothingness. A new pulsing appeared, throbbing in his head as if his mind were trying to pump blood too fast. The veins on his forehead flinched and he found himself leaning over until he started to topple. Hands reached instinctually, but with his mind so numb he couldn’t feel the pain anymore. Then he sensed it lingering in the back of his mind—the ancient magic. It moved through his mind like smoke through a screen, through all the tiny holes of his defenses. The numbness increased and he went from blind to blurry to clear, and to blind again. Fighting proved useless. It shoved aside all his mental blocks, thrust itself into his mind, stealing images of things he had never seen before like a computer virus. Someone appeared beside him, but he couldn’t look at them. He felt the pressure of his clothes being tugged, but he couldn’t seem to move his head. His eyes stared blankly forward and spit fell from his mouth.
He heard voices again, like the specters only deeper and more sinister.
Zagra calls. Zagra calls.
He wanted to speak, but all he could manage was a faint groan.
The one who rides in the shadow of the dead. Become one of us. Join the shadows. Join the dead.
In the corner of his eye he saw the Nu’thri standing fully upright on its emaciated legs, its bones all visible beneath the ethereal blue glow of its skin. Its mouth was open, gaping like an azure tomb. Its eyes were blank. James saw the images again—fire, serpents, and walls of black. He flinched, his eyes stared forward and sudden surges of magic poured through his hands. Something told him that his wounds were getting worse, but he couldn’t feel any of it. One of the massive fires burned crystal clear in his vision.
Then, something stirred in the flames. He tried to gulp, but couldn’t. Fear trickled through him even as the ancient presence pushed through his mind, trying to bat down the last of his blocks to reach the energies that controlled his ability to live. The flames shook and then surged out in a mighty cylinder, becoming an enormous serpent with long fangs. The serpent surged towards James. Fear surfaced in his mind, but not his. Sound came back to him and he could hear the serpent roar. It turned violently sideways and then slithered swiftly towards the Nu’thri, which leaned farther back.
James sensed more magic flowing. The serpent and Nu’thri collided, magic striking the flames and turning into clouds of smoke. The serpent continued, pushing and reaching for the Nu’thri. Magic became sparks and sparks became stretched streams of molten ash. Then the jaws of the serpent closed around the Nu’thri. Light flashed; the serpent screeched. A new flash shined and then the serpent exploded in a wave of fire and ash leaving behind nothing, not the Nu’thri, not anything.
The fire settled or disappeared and the connection ceased entirely from James’ mind. He slumped over and landed with a thud in the soft ash and dust. All feeling returned and pain surged up every inch of his body except his chest. There were gashes in nearly every place and blood trickled from all them. Weakness slowly came as the magic ceased moving through his fingertips. There were voices and then Pea, Darl, and Iliad appeared in his vision. They looked down on him, but not with faces of concern for his wellbeing. They were faces of fear, fear of him, of what had just happened. They too were bleeding. Small cuts were on their faces, arms, and midsections. They each looked haggard, spent, exhausted.
As his vision began to become blurry, James heard Triska limping forward. She appeared in his vision, pushing the others angrily away. He smiled faintly. Then everything went completely dark and he dropped away from the world.