Chapter Twenty-Six: Into Darkness
The light of morning flashed through the trees as two horsemen made their way across the northern edge of Khazinth, shadowed by a slant of cliffs that curved like a giant claw. They were riding east down a worn path that ran along the shore when they spied a large troop coming over the hills. There were armored men riding black chargers and men-at-arms with pikes and hundreds of swordsmen. They halted and watched the soldiers pass; their faces were grim as they recognized the black and gold armor of Mor. The troop was led by two of the king’s knights whose pale armor stood out from the sea of black figures. They went swiftly over the hills and disappeared in the west.
“Mor tightens its hold on us,” the smaller man said. “They send more troops each day.”
“They will be stationed here for some time,” the larger one said, “but they cannot be quartered in the north end.”
“They will be quartered by order of the king.”
“But there is no room,” the man protested.
“New quarters are being built. They will use tents in the meanwhile.”
“New quarters? How long will they be stationed here?”
The smaller man laughed. “How long were they stationed in Jhod, a year or two?”
The larger man shook his head. “Jhod was conquered long ago in a border dispute. Mor has no quarrel with us.”
“And what of Nojor in the west?” the smaller man inquired. “So many miles away, yet not far enough to escape these dark troops that march in the east. What quarrel did Mor have with that distant land? These men need no quarrel, they perceive all the world is theirs and they will not stop marching until every kingdom has been sundered.”
“They do not come to conquer us,” the other said. “There have been raiders at sea and brigands roaming the land. The troops will leave when things have calmed.”
“That is what Mor pretends, but the raiders pose no threat. In fact, many believe they are in league with Mor. They say they are mercenaries sent to create confusion and distract us.”
“I doubt that.”
“I think it is true. Wherever the raiders have appeared, Mor has followed at their heels with troops, claiming they come to deal with threats across the sea, as if a band of pirates might conquer all the east. They say they will guard these lands against all enemies, but in truth they fear only the elves.”
The smaller man nodded. “They defeated the raiders at sea with strange powers.”
“I heard the tales,” the other said.
“When the men of Mor speak of threats across the sea, they speak of the elves.”
“What interest do elves have in this?”
“I cannot say, but I know the men of Mor do not prepare for a war with men. It is the elves they fear, that is why they tighten their hold on us.”
“They think the elves will try to conquer the lands of men?”
“If the elves wanted to conquer men, they would have done it long ago. They do not fear us as we have feared them. They have no quarrel with men.”
“Their warships have been sighted in many parts.”
“They move against Mor and its sorceries; they do not threaten mankind.”
“The sorceries of Mor,” the other one grunted. “I have heard those tales also.”
“It is true, the men of Mor deal in dark arts.”
“And command armies of unnatural creatures,” the other laughed. “Some say they are demons in human disguise.”
“The lords of Mor are sorcerers,” the smaller one replied. “They are men with strange powers that no army has defeated.”
“They won the East with flesh and steel,” said the other. “Not sorcery.”
“Their forces swept through the kingdoms of the east too swiftly for swords. Do you not remember the great fortress of Sihri?”
“The fortress that could not be conquered,” the other recalled.
“It fell in one day. And what of Turum and Yin, kingdoms that had stood for centuries, all crushed by the fell powers of Mor. No army of men could achieve this without supernatural aid.”
“Who can say how they conquered the East, it was years ago and we have only the stories we have heard.”
“It was not so long ago and there are many who have seen the terrors that come from Mor, things that cannot be imagined.”
“The legends of Mor are no less fanciful than the elf fables,” the larger one chided. “I have seen no supernatural doings, no sorcerous beasts. I have only seen a troop of men on horses riding over hills.”
“How do they cross impassable mountains and march for days without sleep? How do they defeat all armies?”
“With strength and numbers.”
“No force of men could overthrow great kingdoms so quickly,” the smaller one persisted. “They took the East with sorcery.”
There was a trample of hooves and they saw more horsemen coming over the hills.
The smaller man sighed. “They tighten their grip on us.”
“We are allies now,” the other replied.
The smaller man laughed. “The dark lords do not make allies of the lands they conquer.”
“We have not been conquered,” the other said.
“There has been no fighting, no blood has been shed, but a war has been lost, for we have sided with wicked men who will take this land in days to come.”
“There is still the king.”
“A crown on his head does not make him a king. Our true masters are gathered in Mor.”
“It is a crime to speak against the king’s authority,” the other cautioned.
“Arrest me then,” the man challenged. “I will not be silenced, I speak the truth. Dinnisien has led us to our doom.”
“And what would you have us do, take arms against Mor and its allies? Would you have us fight the powers they have gathered and see our cities destroyed?” The man paused and his gaze fell on the wet rocks of the shore. “The world changes. Things are not as I would like them to be, but we must accept things as they are.”
The smaller man was about to reply when something caught his eye. He turned his gaze across the water and found a ship in the distance. It was carved with a strange craft and its great mast reached into the sky with massive sails that billowed like clouds. It was like no ship he had ever seen.
“They are heading for the straits,” the larger man said. “We should tell the king.”
The smaller man turned to his friend and eyed him a moment before he spoke. “I think you are mistaken, their course will not take them through the straits. It is plainly a merchant vessel on its way to Gyuune.”
The larger man paused to glance at the ship and, for a moment, his eyes were wide with wonder. “Perhaps you are right. The king cannot be troubled with every ship that passes.”
The two men looked at each other and smiled. They watched the ship pass out of sight, glinting in the light of the westering sun.
They crossed the straits before the light of dawn was upon them and sailed into the cold sea. Glaciers stood like a valley of ice around them. A chill wind howled and blew drifts of snow that lashed the air. The crew worked to keep the ship on a steady course through a maze of ice as giant bergs loomed suddenly in their path, appearing out of the mist. The air grew colder. The crooning wind tossed the ship through sheets of snow and, for days, the world was lost in a white haze that dimmed sun and moon.
Then suddenly they came out of the mist and spied a curling fog that hung in the east. They sailed into the fog and found the mountains of Mor piercing the sky. The air grew warmer as they approached the land, yet there was the sense of something colder than ice stirring around them. The crew fell silent as they sailed toward Mor beneath a sorcerous fog that twisted over the earth.
Before the noon sun was in the sky, Efkin was leading Ebin and Colun across a frozen land. They marched over hills and through valleys of ice, at times struggling to move forward through snow that swallowed them up to their waists. They halted after some miles and stood for a while staring across the cold waste. The wind moaned and shards of ice blew in the air and stung the flesh with unnatural cold.
Efkin stared at the ground. A strange power stirred under the snow. It was something sorcerous.
“I sense it is near.”
They scanned the frozen ground and kicked the snow, hoping to uncover the passage they sought, but found nothing. Efkin paused and stared at the ice. The wind whipped in his face and he stepped back. At once, they heard a keen crooning above the howl of wind. He drew Harbinger from its sheath and eyed the blade as it sang in the air. He took a step and the sword crooned louder. Another step and the tone rose higher. He lowered the sword so that it pointed to the ground and its crooning became a high pitch that rang between the hills.
Efkin stared at the ground a moment. Then he raised the sword and clove through the ice with a stroke that sent crystal fragments scattering in the wind. At once, they saw a metal disc. It was a black thing carved with strange Runes that seemed to twist and glow with a dark radiance. Efkin stared at the black disc and saw it was stuck in the earth with no gap for prying hands to open. It was an impenetrable seal enchanted with powerful sorceries to withstand any force brought against it.
Harbinger hummed in his grasp. He raised the sword high in the air and, with one downward stroke, pierced the seal. Curls of black radiance leaked out of the metal like ebon flames as the disc cracked and dissolved, at once collapsing under the stress of its sorcerous properties.
The black flames flashed, the disc faded into dust, and they stood looking down a hole as Harbinger fell silent. They leapt into the portal and stepped cautiously down a passage that wound its way through the rock. Their path dimmed as they moved away from the sunlight that slanted down the hole, but they noticed the tunnel was dimly lit with a queer light. They went forward and found the passage branched in three directions. They paused at the intersection a moment.
“Which way?” asked Ebin.
Efkin touched the horn, once more tapping its power. His essence seeped into the earth, reaching through miles of rock, searching for the tainted iron that would lead them to the Runes. Almost instantly, he felt the poison all around him as he passed into an area that was rich with iron. It was miles away, but he saw it clearly in his mind’s eye.
“This way,” he said. They followed him down a tunnel that bent sharply.
“How far is it?” asked Colun.
Efkin was about to reply when a strange glow caught his eye. He leapt into the passage at his right to avoid a thin stream of molten matter that flowed suddenly out of the central passage. A moment later, he saw Ebin and Colun had retreated into the opposite passage so that he was separated from them by the burning current that ran between them. He watched the two disappear down the slanting passage, escaping the hot stream that fell after them. Efkin watched the glowing current spread through the tunnel like a fiery carpet, then backed away as it bled into his narrow passage. He turned and went down the tunnel with the lava flowing slowly behind him, a bubbling, creeping menace at his heels.