Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Runes
The wind howled suddenly and clouds were spinning. There was a rumble of thunder and the skies flashed with a queer light. Something strange was stirring in the air, and behind him, Efkin did not see the dark figure who came toward him.
“It begins,” the man said.
Efkin spun around and drew Harbinger from its sheath. He faced the man as he stepped out of shadows wearing a sword at his side and a cloak that curled like black smoke.
“Who are you?” Efkin demanded.
The man came closer and Efkin saw he wore a mail that glistened like black pearl and shifted in strange patterns. Then he glanced the crown on his head and felt the terror of his presence, for before him stood Vahnd-Groth.
The king of Mor stepped closer and Efkin gripped his sword as he approached, almost afraid to move as he met the sorcerer’s gaze. He was a tall man with pleasant features, but there was the hint of something sinister in his eyes. Efkin was afraid, for he knew Vahnd had great powers. He held his sword between them as the dark lord came toward him.
“How many have perished in this canyon,” the sorcerer said. “Wandering for days inside the Runes they sought.” He halted and eyed the elf. “All killed by the poison of iron.”
Efkin stared at the sorcerer, confused.
“Not iron from a sword,” said Vahnd. “The iron that runs in the blood of elves and men. It is a trace amount you cannot perceive, but even this small amount becomes lethal for the elves when they are exposed to the Runes. Men are immune to this effect, and thus we are the stronger race. We will survive long after the elves have faded from the earth.”
Both hands at Harbinger’s hilt, Efkin stood waiting for the sorcerer to strike. Vahnd turned his gaze to the darkening skies.
“There was a time long ago when no men or elves were upon the earth,” he said, “yet even then, beings struggled for dominance. The elves say that men are cruel, but the wars of men cannot compare with the battles your ancestors fought at the beginning of days.” He stared at the elf. “For centuries, men have studied the Runes, working to harness a power that was carved ages ago, written into the earth itself, and through the years we have gained knowledge of hidden forces and mastered the powers needed to complete the Runes. The elves have feared our progress and said that men will bring ruin to the world. You condemn our sorcery, but do you know its origin?”
“It comes from malice.”
Vahnd smiled. “You believe the Kyre saved the earth from terrible forces, but you do not know the beings they fought were kindred powers, once part of the same harmony that created your ancestors. You condemn men for their fighting, but you are descended from beings who sundered themselves with war. The very beings who carved the Runes.”
Efkin was stunned. He knew the sorcerer had deceived men with lies, but there was no guile in his voice.
The sorcerer smiled. “You think the Runes were left by monstrous beings, but in truth the powers that carved the Runes were too sublime to conceive. They fought the Kyre for control of the earth in a civil war between kindred powers that shook the heavens. The Kyre banished them from the earth, but their offspring remain.”
Efkin was confused.
“You have been to the troll caves,” the sorcerer said, discerning things no men could know. “You have seen the writings. The flowing script that seems almost elvish. What beings do you suppose scribed on those walls.” Vahnd came closer, casually stepping forward without trace of fear. “They were not always such crude beasts. They did not always dwell in caves. There was a time when they possessed great powers that rivaled the elves. A time when they could still enter the elven forest. But that was before the curse of wood.”
“In a time, they were great beings, not unlike your elven kind, descended from higher entities in the same way the Braey are descended from the Kyre. They were created by the beings that carved the Runes, beings that once shone as bright as the Kyre. The trolls are wretched things now. They are utterly without memory of their origin, but their ancient writings were necessary for our work, increasing our knowledge of the Runes so that we could complete the signs.”
Efkin stared at the sorcerer in dismay. He did not want to believe him, but he could not dismiss the writing in the caves or the strange powers the trolls had acquired.
“There is much they have forgotten,” Vahnd said, “but those few that can speak are still able to conjure and summon. We supplied them with gems and orbs and other items of our craft not to restore them to their former power, but merely to aid them in their fight with the elves, and perhaps the two races might annihilate each other. We have no alliance with trolls and will suffer no rivals in our special arts. They were powerful beings once, but their time has passed. They are much like the elves.” The sorcerer eyed the elf lord. “But let us not forget they are your kin.”
Vahnd paused and held his cold gaze upon Efkin. He stood very still, sword sheathed at his side, as if defying Efkin to strike. He grinned.
“For too long, the elves have interfered in our conflicts, but a new age is upon us, when men will inherit the earth.”
“You will destroy the world,” Efkin said. “The powers you have loosed will ravage the earth and none will survive.”
“We will survive,” said Vahnd. “Our cities will stand while all the world changes.”
“Your empire will crumble into the sea,” Efkin said, backing away as the dark lord stepped closer.
Vahnd laughed. “To destroy what has taken centuries to build would be foolish. We have taken measures that will protect our lands from the forces that reshape the world. Have you not wondered why a fog hangs over our territories? The grey mist will absorb the forces we unleash so that Mor and its allies will stand against the storm that is coming.”
The tower shook with a clap of thunder and light flashed through the chamber. Efkin would have turned to glance the sky, but he dared not give his back to Vahnd.
The sorcerer eyed the elf a moment. A grin crossed his face and then his black cloak whipped the air and Vahnd was gone.
Efkin stood very still, holding his sword in front of him as if he still faced the sorcerer.
The wind howled and shadows twisted in the glow of lightning. Something stirred behind him. At once, Harbinger swept up to meet black steel as a blade appeared out of the air. There was a clash of metal and then the sword vanished.
Before he could catch his breath, the sword materialized in front of him. Harbinger sliced the air and he twirled round with the motion of the stroke to parry another attack, and then a third, and a fourth. The black sword stabbed out of the darkness, appearing and vanishing, attacking from all sides, and Efkin was spinning round to defend himself. Harbinger flashed through the air, but his hand did not wield the sword, for it moved of its own volition, weaving a silvery defense, and he held a tight grip on the hilt as his wrist twisted with the movements of the sentient blade.
The black sword thrust at him and Harbinger leapt to catch the dark steel. The swords met with a clangor and, in that instant, Efkin noticed a blackness that hung in the air like a curling shadow. The sword faded into blackness and, before it vanished, Efkin caught a glimpse of black armor that shifted with strange patterns.
Harbinger swept to guard his rear, and this time he took control of the blade and thrust into the blackness. Suddenly, ebon flames spilled out of the void as Harbinger struck the pearl mail of Vahnd-Groth.
The sorcerer cursed and fell back, disappearing into the darkness of his strange cloak. Then he was sweeping his black sword in a rage, slipping in and out of his cloak of shadows so that Efkin never knew where he would strike, but every blow he dealt was turned aside, for Harbinger met his dark blade wherever it appeared. Efkin was twirling round, grasping the sword with both hands, fearing he would lose his grip on the dancing blade, but he did not attempt to control the sword, he merely followed its movements as it swept through the air.
Vahnd was above him now and Harbinger curved up to deflect the black steel as it came whistling out of the hovering void. The sorcerer was startled for a moment and Efkin dealt him a blow that would have split him in half if not for the sorcerous mail he wore. Vahnd cursed in anger and renewed his attack, thrusting and slashing, attacking from every side. His ebon blade was a shadowy blur as it sliced the air with a furious speed that no man could match, yet he could not finish the elf who wielded a sword that was not forged by men.
The two clashed swords as the skies flashed with a purple light and storm winds howled. There were black shapes twisting in the air. Vahnd turned his gaze on the dark things and the shades flew to his side.
Harbinger was humming as the shaith swept into the tower and Efkin tightened his grip on the blade. The creatures came rushing at him and he stood firm as the crooning sword leapt in the air and scattered them. Then he spun on his heel to parry a thrust that came out of shadows. The chamber rang with the clash of swords as a crimson glow washed the sky. The shaith flitted around like wisps of smoke and Harbinger sent them retreating with swift strokes, but one of the dark things slipped past the dancing sword and seized the horn. The creature hissed and fled away, soaring into the purple sky.