By Rene Steen


Within the Golden Dragon the hubbub of patrons relating their adventures over portions of their favourite brew muted the sound of the storm raging outside. Standing behind a stout oak-wood bar Meelan polished thoughtfully at a pewter mug, pausing every now and then to hawk a globule of spit into the vessel before rubbing it energetically into the metal. He didn't miss much. Anyone who would part with coin-o'-the-realm could learn the darkest of secrets from him. If he liked them, and decided to divulge his knowledge. He spat another dab of 'cleanser' into the vessel and surveyed the dim tavern with his wall-eyed gaze. In the smoky, flickering light of the oil-lamps he could just make out the source of his income for this night. It was not bad for the time of week and the three dwarfs sitting near the eastern wall were purchasing their favourite potent spirits by the jack-full at 30 Royals per drink! It made Meelan smile, as he mentally converted the take so far into gold pieces. Over near the open fire, two warriors were arguing heatedly and Meelan furrowed his brow as he saw one prodding the other hard in the chest. Tonight was not a good night for a brawl between those two. With the weather the way it was the guard would most likely have sought shelter somewhere within the catacombs of the city. Fat help they would be if two warriors decided to let some blood! He sighed again and studied the two elves who sat by themselves in a darkened corner. The female was quite pretty, and Meelan felt a slight twinge in his manhood as he studied her pert little breasts under the green jerkin that almost didn't contain them. Her male companion was of dark complexion, with blue-black hair and a deep scowl. He was dressed in black hide, with a cloak of midnight that made him hard to see unless you looked askance and viewed him in peripheral vision. Meelan wasn't very keen on elves. Actually he disliked them and didn't trust them, but when they paid him in good silver coin he would thrust such feelings into the dungeons of his mind.

All conversation ceased abruptly. Meelan swung his heavy features towards the cause; the main door crashing open, noisily bouncing off the tavern wall. Instantly the howl of the wind pervaded the inn, killing lamps and torches with its angry swirl. Standing in the flurry of dirt, leaves and raindrops stood an impressive figure, fully two metres high. His solid body resisted the tug and thrust of the eddying storm as reddened eyes swept the room. Slowly stepping into the heated atmosphere of the inn he came, a warrior of such stature that all gazed upon his might and girth. His azure eyes probed the room from a bronzed, weather-beaten face as a huge fist thrust at the solid oak plank that was the door. It crashed back onto its latch, even against the force of the wailing wind outside.

"Karal Ironblood! Well met!" The voice from the darkness preceded its owner's appearance, as a small drab cloaked figure emerged from the murk, sallow features hidden in a peaked cowl. Karal Ironblood's head whirled towards the advancing figure, sending a spray of raindrops arching from the tangle of dark hair that capped his frame.

"Slink, you old thief. Haven't the militia hung you yet?"

His voice was deep and vibrant, and the wide smile that accompanied it did wonders towards relaxing the patrons. One by one they returned to their low conversations as the two men met and grasped each other's wrists.

Huddled over his leather jack of sweet wine, Slink looked rodent-like. His long pointed nose added to the illusion of a rat-turned-human. Firelight made his narrow eyes glisten as he heard the big barbarian's tale.

"I came to Eastport on an errant of self indulgence. It is told in the western regions of a wondrous blade called 'Darksoul', crafted by Kaotis in the heart fires of the world before time began. History has it that the demon, Yaathnaronz, stole it from Kaotis and brought it from the nether planes to Earth, presenting it as a gift to the warrior called Boruz Cruelhand."

"Cruelhand? Was he not the berserker knight who with his hoard, the Nightbrood, waged a war of attrition against the Kingdom some two centuries ago?" Slink's grasp of Kingdom history was legendary amongst his contemporaries and he had been known to fill in many idle hours re-telling the old tales over a tankard.

"Aye, he's one and the same."

"And you seek this blade in Eastport? Have you knowledge of its whereabouts?"

"Should rumour be fact, then Greychant, a Dark Dwarf wizard, has it in his keep, in Moaningwood."

"You came all this way just to steal a sword from a Dark Dwarf wizard?" The thief nodded. Tipping the jack to his mouth he drained the golden nectar before crashing it down onto the scarred tabletop. Slink cast a meaningful look at Meelan, causing the innkeeper to hurry over and replenish the vessel.

"So you want to go into a wizard's castle, steal an enchanted blade and go fluttering off into the setting sun, eh? And what makes you think to be a thief? You couldn't steal a maiden's kiss!"

Karal looked hurt at his friend's scorn. "I might have a plan."

"A plan? And does your plan include a thief we both know really well? Like me, for instance?"

Karal peered under the cowl and smiled. "Now, why didn't I think of that?" He asked, voice filled with wonder.

Slink shuffled his feet, cast his gaze upwards and sighed loudly. "So what's in it for me?"

Leaning closer, Karal's voice dropped to a conspiring whisper. "I hear there is treasure stored in the strong-room. Buckets of gems and bags of jewellery from all over the realm, and some from realms beyond. More than enough to keep a thief like you in drink and women for a few years. What say?"

"Gems? And jewellery?" Slink raised a thin hand that trembled slightly with excitement and tossed back the cowl from his face revealing a bald pate. Without the camouflage he looked rather ordinary. A small, thin man in his late twenties with a salubrious 'conk' that tested the air in short, sharp snuffles as the thought of such wealth raced through his head.

"I'd have to check my itinerary. Let me see..." He stroked his chin and screwed up his face as if in deep thought. "Ah! I seem to be free of engagement for seven of the days that make up this week! When do we leave?"

"Just as soon as I've drank my fill and slept some. Set me up, Slink. Here's to our adventure!"


Once clear of Eastport, the carefully maintained cobble road soon deteriorated into black mud that oozed and stank in the morning sunlight. Karal's Clydesdale, with its wide hooves, plodded through the quagmire with ease while the smaller, slightly built pony ridden by Slink slipped and slid through it with grim determination. It had stopped raining just before dawn and now the sun shone through great rends in the cloud, warming up the day and stirring swarms of biting insects from the greenery nearby. Karal sweated under his chain-mail. He was uncomfortable, but rode in Stoic silence enduring the sting of sweat and bugs, his steely blue eyes searching the path ahead.

In deference to the morning heat Slink had doffed his cowl. He rode, red faced and sweating, his long nose quivering at the unwanted attention of the flies. The thief rode awkwardly, elbows well out from his sides, jigging the reigns frequently (a gesture largely ignored by his horse). His narrow face was set in a grimace of deep concentration laced with disapproval of the sticky smelly mud, of the horse, the flies, the weather.... Slink gazed at the barbarian's broad back, swaying easily in rhythm with the Clydesdale's movement as the large horse placed plate-like feet into selected patches of mire with practised ease.

Karal was whistling tunelessly, eyes roving along the skirt of trees that made up the edge of Moaningwood, while above that dank forest large flocks of birds dipped and glided in the humid air. Again Slink's pony slipped, bucking slightly under him as it regained its footing, almost causing Slink to lose his balance for the umpteenth time. Once more the thief cursed his avarice for gems and jewellery as the pain in his buttocks reminded him that, as a horseman, he was a far better thief. Narrow eyes squinted into the gloom to the right. A thief has to be good at observation. Otherwise he would soon be an ex-thief with no fingers left to pick his nose with. The Militia had a rude habit of severing a thief's hands if caught. Now his keen eyes and alertness paid off. A flash of red broke from the trees, and Slink saw a shape blur towards his friend's horse.

"Look out!" he cried, as the hurtling body of a female warrior slammed side-on into the beast. Karal had already extracted his boots from the stirrups at the yell and was twisting his body off the horse as the great steed staggered off balance, rolling onto its side. The warrior landed on his feet. He crouched and spun. There was a cold whisper of sound as his blade zipped out from its scabbard. His sun-tanned face contorted into a snarl of rage as a red-haired bundle of fury cannoned into him, also with sword raised.

The two engaged. Their war-blades met in mid-air with a resounding clash, sparks spewing from their edges. Karal kicked out one booted foot, rolled to the side and swept his weapon upward from a position near the ground. The woman lunged, hair flying like living fire, her broadsword snaking forward in a killing thrust. Again steel crashed into steel as the upward arc of Karal's blade intercepted the other's weapon. Now they broke apart, crouching and circling, looking for an opening. Issuing a fierce cry the female warrior sprang forward, her blade held high. With a mighty swing she brought it down in a sweeping cut aimed straight at Karal's head. Dropping to one knee, Karal pushed his broadsword up over his head, parallel to the ground, catching the descending blade inches from his crown. He pushed upwards, powering his movement with a piston-like thrust of muscular legs, screaming a savage cry as he swung viciously under the other's weapon, aiming for a cut to the ribs. She dodged back, bringing her blade up to defend her body.

The two weapons again crashed together with a loud ring. Now they both swung back, holding their swords ready, high over their heads. Their eyes locked each awaiting the other's move. Again the two antagonists erupted into fury as both weapons flashed through the air, hers high, his lower and parallel. This time as they met, their weapons locked at the hilts. The two fighters came together, swords crossed between them, faces only inches apart, eyes blazing. There they stood for several seconds as muscles rippled, strength pushing against strength, teeth bared in determined snarls, weapons locked, noses almost touching.

Slink reached for his dagger, wurmfang, his eyes fixed on the woman's back. He fully intended to leap forward and ram Wurmfang into the vixen's back, when suddenly Karal's head snaked forward...and planted a wet, juicy kiss onto the female's nose. She began to laugh. Her blade loosened from the cross. She retreated a half-pace, her eyes screwed up in merriment. Karal was grinning and it only took a few seconds before the fiery red-head's laughter sent him into giggles. Dropping his blade he stepped forward and gathered the woman into his arms, kissing her passionately on the mouth. She did not resist. To Slink's amazement she, too, dropped her weapon, grasped the warrior behind the head, and gave him a long, probing kiss.

When it seemed both must faint from lack of air, they broke their passionate embrace. Karal turned to Slink, still standing with his mouth agape and clutching the dagger as if to plunge it into someone's heart.

"Slink, meet my good friend, and sometime lover. This is Flame Wildhand." He turned to the woman who was breathing heavily.

"By Kronos, woman. I swear you get stronger by the day. I almost couldn't hold your attack that time."

She grinned impishly at him and struck with her sensual lips kissing him quickly on the mouth. "And you, Barbarian. I thought you had me with a death-stroke when your blade cut at my ribs."

"Nay woman." he replied embracing her again; "I know your mettle. A stroke like that had no chance of getting through."

"When you two have finished congratulating yourselves..." Slink looked annoyed. His long nose had reddened with anger and his eyes flashed as he re-sheathed his blade.

"Flame, meet Slink. But count your fingers after shaking hands." Karal said, grinning into the tangle of red hair that fluffed up over his lips and nose. He was still holding Flame tight, aware of her soft curves pressing against his hardened frame. She was now breathing normally, her warrior-trained body recovering within minutes after her violent bout of exercise. Turning her head slightly until her mouth was clear of the big fighter's chest, she pursed her lips and emitted a short, sharp whistle. From the tangle of greenery nearby a charcoal horse trotted into view resplendent in its red leather finery.

"Come, Cinder. Meet my beloved and Slink, his rat-faced friend."


Flame stopped her horse. To the west the sun was bedding down behind purple hills, pulling a blanket of dark cloud over itself in preparation for the night. A hundred paces away the track entered into the forest, flanked by sombre trees and vanishing into the gloom. She peered into the gathering shadows, her green eyes squinting, one hand pushing at her unruly mane to keep it from obscuring her vision. The redhead stood up in the stirrups and Slink could hear her leather harness creak as it shifted under her weight. Now she was sniffing the air, turning her head from side to side slowly. He had to admit his friend had a good taste in women. Pity he liked the violent ones, though. His eyes were travelling over her full breasts, restrained by the leather of her jerkin and cupped in beaten plates of steel. Her slender neck was protected by a mail gorget, much like Karal's and she also wore greaves on her shins. Suddenly Slink broke his reverie as he sensed his friend and the woman tense. They hadn't spoken but each kicked their mount, loosened their weapons in the scabbard, and began to circle. Flame counter-clockwise, Karal clockwise. The thief peered in the same direction the two were gazing so intently and thought he detected movement in the gathering gloom. He cursed softly at the deepening shadows, straining his eyes to identify the danger. Three black horses rode towards them from the woods, men in armour on their backs.

They came in spearhead formation, at full gallop. By the look of the axe one brandished, and the thick, long bastard swords the other two were swinging, it was not going to be a joyous welcome. Slink reached deep into his pouch, extracting from it a well-made Elven sling and a handful of steel balls the size of his thumb. Without taking his eyes off the approaching riders he loaded one into the soft leather pouch of the sling. Swinging the weapon slowly around his head, he fixed his gaze on the rider at the point of the formation. Now they became clearer even in the gathering darkness. The horses had blazing eyes that burnt with inner hell-fire and the demonic set of their faces suggested these were Hippodeamons probably from Kaotis's realm. As if to verify this, one snorted a lengthy tongue of flame from its nostrils and bared its teeth, which were pointed like a dragon's. Now that they were closer Slink noticed the unkempt appearance of the knight's armour. They were all dressed in full suits of armour over chain-mail, visor down, but the metal was rusty and their surcoats faded and tattered. Deathknights! His gaze had spotted the wrist bones that showed momentarily between the short gauntlet and the chain-mail sleeve of one of the knight's sword arm. These dead horrors took some stopping. By now the trio had broken up, each selecting a target.

The one with the battle-axe rode towards Slink and now the thief could see the red glow of evil light behind the visor. He sped up the whirl of the sling, peered intently at the eye-slit in the armour, and snapped the whizzing weapon forward. Released from its centrifugal constraints, the steel missile zipped through the air in a flat line, slipping neatly through the visor-slit as Slink had intended. The knight's head snapped back as the force of the blow struck him. His body fell back onto the haunches of his beast and thick, black ichor sprayed from the visor.

Karal swung his broadsword from low on his left side in a vicious diagonal cut to the high right. The other knight was alongside, his serrated blade whistling downwards, aimed at the big warrior's head. Two blades clashed mightily and a rain of sparks lit up between the parting metal. Karal pulled hard on his reins. The war-horse dug four hooves instantly into the sod, reared and turned, then galloped gamely at the iron-shod enemy who was executing a similar manoeuvre. Karal's horse was quicker as it accelerated up to full gallop. This time the broadsword cut viciously at the other knight's exposed neck. Doomed, but still hoping to avert the inevitable, the deathknight tried vainly to bring his weapon across from the other side of his body to block the blow. He was far too late. The sturdy blade caught the deathknight under his helmet with titan force, severing through the dead tissue beneath, hacking through the dried spinal column. The deathknight's head spun off into the darkness as the corpse fell from the steed, crashing onto the ground. Karal caught a glimpse of the smoke that poured from the armour, now deteriorating and crumbling into itself, before he turned to see where the others were.

Off to one side Flame Wildhand's pony was locked side to side with a hippodeamon while the two beast's riders were slogging it out. Swords crashed together in ringing blows. Flame screamed her war cry as her broadsword snaked in and out, seeking an opening in the dead man's armour. As Karal started towards Flame, Slink saw his own nemesis, the axe wielding knight straighten in the saddle. Ichor still spewed out from the helmet; malodorous blood contained too long in the dead carcass encased in iron. Again the sling whirled and another steel ball snapped towards its target. This time Slink's aim, hasty with panic, was slightly off and the ball clanged harmlessly off the deathknight's chest. He knew he was dead then. Fumbling badly as he tried to reload his weapon, Slink dropped the last ball he had in his hand, feeling it careen off his boot on its way to being trampled in the dirt beneath. The hippodeamon snorted flame as it carried its rider towards its quarry. Slink reached again into the pouch, seeking desperately for more of the steel balls therein, eyeing with horror the animated corpse now only paces away. Its axe rose high into the blackened sky, seeming to scintillate with bursts of starlight as the knight lent forward to deal the thief a deathblow. Slink's hand found something. A stick? A smooth stick? No... A wand! If he had had the time he would have sent a quick prayer to Mirak, God of Thieves, but he needed what was left of time to save his miserable carcass.

He threw himself sideways in the saddle as the axe descended in a flesh-rending blow and pointed the smooth stick at the homicidal zombie, screaming the power-word at the top of his lungs. There was a flash so bright it robbed the night of its mantle of darkness for a brief second. A green fist-sized ball of flame soared from the wand's tip, aiming itself unerringly at the thing's chest. The knight was busily trying to recover the axe's swing when the ball exploded just under his chin, showering the hippodeamon with sparks of burning energy. He screamed as magical fire consumed him and, within seconds, a bundle of rapidly rusting, smoking armour fell to the ground. The rider-less hippodeamon gave a weird cry and sprang into the sky, galloping upwards into the night air until it disappeared behind low-lying cloud.

Flame felt the bite of the blade as it crashed through her bracer and clove the flesh beneath. A goodly wound, she knew, and blood began instantly to flow down into her hand making the leather sword-grip difficult to hold. The deathknight was lifting his bastard sword for a back-hand slash, which flame knew her injured sword arm could not withstand, when another blade crunched into the plating below his up-raised arm. It was Karal. Savagely pulling her beast aside, Flame circled outwards, bringing herself to the rear of the knight as she closed with his hippodeamon. Karal was on the other side of the beast, hacking away at the deathknight in short, savage blows. Ichor spattered all three combatants as the dead warrior took wound after wound. Flame switched her sword to her left hand, wrapped the reins of her pony around her right wrist, and began raining blows onto the deathknight's back and shoulders. He retaliated, swinging his vicious weapon at each in turn, catching Karal high on the shoulder nicking his neck. Now all three combatants had come to a halt, their mounts pacing back and forth nervously as the three traded steely blows.

"Stand aside" came a shout. Karal spun his mount and saw his friend, the thief, had a stick in his hand pointed at the deathknight. "Ware, Flame." he yelled spurring his horse out of the line of fire. Flame Wildhand heard the challenge, delivered one last stinging blow, and backed away from her enemy. Again a green ball of power emanated from the wand, illuminating the night as it sizzled through the air to burst against the deathknight's chest. The force of the blow lifted the dead man from his saddle and there was an audible ringing crash as the smoking corpse hit the ground.

Now rider-less, the hippodeamon turned, snorting a long tongue of fire at Flame. She shrank away from the heat but not before receiving a severe burn to her left arm, making her drop her weapon. Slink readjusted the wand's aim and another energy ball ripped loose smashing into the beast's eyes. Blinded and in pain the hippodeamon screamed, leapt into the air and galloped as fast as it could into the night sky.

Karal and Flame looked stunned at the skinny thief, sitting on his pony with his dark cowl pulled over his head. His face wore a frown as his narrowed eyes gazed at the wand in his hand. The other two followed his gaze and saw that the stick was a split, charred butt of wood still smoking from the last energy ball that had emerged from it.

"It's ruined!" Slink moaned, still staring at the shattered twig. Karal looked at his beloved and both began to laugh, even as Flame caressed her wounded right arm with her wounded left. Their laughter increased until they fell forward across their horse's necks in effort not to fall off to the ground. Slink's indignant face, still staring at the smoking ruin of his wand, only goaded them into gustier chuckles.


A deep green shadow clutched them as they rode out of the morning sunlight and under the canopy of trees, following the trail into the forest. From all around came a moaning sigh as if the forest breathed in long, sad sobs. It was an unnerving place and Slink's gaze darted every which way looking for trouble. Narrow as the trail was the two warriors rode side by side behind the nervous thief, both keeping vigil in case of ambush while they conversed in low voices. Flame's arms were hurting her badly and she winced each time the reins pulled on them. Karal had examined the wounds shortly after awakening this morning. He had bathed them the previous night, after setting camp, with herbs and water from his canteen, frowning at the heat in them. He knew that any infection was dangerous and that his lover needed a cleric's care soon else she would develop fever.

By midday Flame was beginning to feel faint and the party dismounted while Karal attended her wounds. The cut in her right arm was showing signs of infection with inflamed edges and seeping pus. He washed the wound once more before applying a poultice of herbs mixed with pungent yellow powder from Burning Mountain, given to Karal during his travels by a friendly cleric.

"What would I give for a healing potion" he said to his friend. Slink nodded glumly, checking in his bags for the umpteenth time in vain hope he may have missed such a potion during his earlier searches. Flame moaned as the poultice brought on fresh waves of pain. She could feel consciousness slipping away as the two men gazed anxiously at her.

"There is a cleric living in these woods." Slink offered.

"I hesitate to suggest him as he is chaotic and unpredictable, but I don't think your lady has much choice."

"Where to?" Karal grabbed his friend's shoulder and shook him as if to rattle the information from him.

"Where the path forks up ahead, about a half-day's ride on the left hand track."

"Then we ride! Come Slink, help me strap Flame onto her mount."

Slink stooped, picking Flame up under her shoulder blades. She opened her eyes, rolled them and slipped back into her coma, moaning softly at the new rush of pain. The big barbarian chaired her in his arms and between the two, they got her into the saddle where Slink held her as Karal tied her to her mount. Soon the trios were on their way, Karal leading her horse and Slink as vanguard.

Afternoon shadows made the clearing seem a lot smaller than it actually was. A hut built of logs and peat, with a wattle roof, dominated the area and Karal could see a thin wisp of smoke curling from the chimney hole. Slink stopped at the edge of the clearing before entering into the open.

"Rasmadus worships Kaotis which makes him totally unpredictable. Sometimes he will heal for a gold coin or a favour, other times he will magic up a plague of boils or worse and inflict them upon any intruders." Slink peered closely at the hut, then pointed at the left side window.

"Even as we speak he watches from within."

Karal nudged his mount forward, pushing past the thief, Flame's steed in tow.

"Beware friend." Slink shouted as he, too, urged his horse into the clearing. As the two dismounted in front of the hut's stout door the portal opened to reveal a thin, cadaverous man of indiscernible age. The midnight blue of his habit accented his pallid features as he snarled at his guests.

"Begone filth. You serve not my master." And with that the cleric slammed the heavy door in their faces. Karal scowled, strode to the door and landed it a solid kick on top of the latch. It yielded, flying inwards to rebound off the wall with a hollow thud. Karal stepped into the gloomy room.

"Come forward, priest!" he shouted, his right hand gripping the broadsword at his side. "Come forward or, by Kronos, I will seek you out, eviscerate you, then feed you your heart before you die." Suddenly the light in the hut brightened until it was as if the sun shone in through the roof. Slink, cautiously crossing the threshold, recognised the simple Spell of Light and knew it to be harmless. Standing at the far side of the room, leaning nonchalantly on a roughly cut table, stood the cleric. His death-like visage had gained some colour and he no longer looked like a week old corpse. He was smiling.

"Well, well! A follower of Kronos seeks help from a servant of Kaotis! What would your goody-goody God have to say about that?"

Karal stood, legs slightly apart, staring at the priest. Slink had moved up beside him, wurmfang held tightly in his fist, yet hidden by a fold of his cape. The cleric straightened, still smiling and adjusted his habit.

"Come, come fellow. Bring the female in here and let me look at her."

Thief and warrior looked at each other, then at the cleric, the same question on both their lips. Before either could voice it, the cleric shrugged. "No magic needed there. I saw she was wounded and I know you didn't come for a goodwill visit. So bring her in!" With that he approached the hearth, picked up a cauldron of boiling water and sloshed the table before scrubbing it with a large lump of coarse cloth.

Flame woke up moaning as the two lay her on the table. The cut was festering, the surrounding flesh an angry red as the infection assailed healthy tissue. On the other arm her burn was suppurating a clear fluid streaked with pus. Ignoring the two men standing warily on each side, the cleric laid his hands onto each wound in turn. He closed his eyes as he did so, muttering under his breath. A few moments passed before he turned to Karal.

"Gangrene in this one." he said, indicating the right arm. "And infection in this one." He pointed to the left.

"Heal her, priest and you may name your price. Anything within my power to give will be yours."

Rasmadus cocked his head and leered. "Anything?"

"Just heal her!" Karal commanded. The priest shrugged and turned to his patient. This time, as he reached out with pale fingers, a small charge of energy crackled from his fingertips. From his lips tumbled a tirade of alien words whose very sound made the two men's skin crawl, but both saw the wound on Flame's arm respond. First the yellow pus seemed to shrink away from the crackling energy. Then the wound, now clean, began to fold in upon itself, its edges meeting and fusing until there was not even a scar. Without pause the cleric repeated his performance on the girl's left arm and the burn, too, vanished as if it had never been. Still he chanted on, turning towards Karal, reaching towards the warrior. The big man stood his ground, unsure of the cleric's intention. Then he felt fingers as cold as death touch the wound in his neck. In his anxiety over Flame he had forgotten about it. Now it, too, vanished.

Flame sat up, swinging her legs over the edge of the table. "I'm hungry." she said.

The cleric chuckled at the bemused expressions of the others. "And I too. Since you have had me work such heavy spells, I suggest you two make the supper."

As night settled outside, the magical light in the hut remained unabated, held in existence by the cleric's will. The four sat around the table upon which the remains of their meal lay scattered, some on but most off the platters.

"And now the question of payment." said the cleric, patting his lean belly with both hands.

"Aye. An oath is an oath. Name your price, priest."

"My price?" Rasmadus grinned, raising an eyebrow. "My price is a small one, easily paid."

"Name it. We do not have a large quantity of gold upon us, but we will gladly give you what we have and more as we ride back this way after our quest."

Rasmadus studied the big barbarian amused at the man's eagerness to part with gold not yet gained.

"I have no need of your gold, Karal Ironblood." he replied in a voice that was almost a whisper.

"Then what?" Karal looked nervously at Flame, knowing the other thing a man might crave in reward, if not gold. The cleric caught his expression and the furtive glance in the girl's direction. He chuckled.

"My dear Karal. Not that I find the thought unflattering, but it is not the reward I had in mind. I merely wish to accompany you to the dark dwarf's castle."

Karal looked at the cleric blissfully unaware of Flame's angry stare as she understood the bargain he had been contemplating.

"Come with us...Why? How did you..." His mouth gaped foolishly, his finger pointing at the cleric.

"Come now, barbarian. I need no fortune crystal to tell me this. You were on the trail that leads to Sombre rock Keep. It ends at the Dark Dwarf's abode, ergo that is your destination."

"And what business have you with the wizard?" It was Slink who spoke, his voice low, his face totally hidden in the shadow of his cowl.

"There is no love lost between the twisted one and I. I may keep my council in this matter, but suffice to say that I would ride as your ally, not your foe. Is this deal done then?"

Flame had given up trying to blister Karal with her eyes. Now she studied the cleric as she spoke. "I owe you much, priest, and I am one who honours debts, even ones made on my behalf." She gave Karal a meaningful glance; "Even should the price have been in flesh." Turning back to the cleric she continued to her point. "I say you are welcome. It is enough that you aid us."

Karal decided to ignore her verbal barb. He nodded his head; "Aye, the price is fair and the company of a healer is always welcome."

Slink shrugged, tapping his long index finger twice on the table. "So be it, priest. Welcome to our band."

That night, in the privacy of their room, Karal reached for Flame lying beside him on the pallet. She clutched his arms before they could encircle her waist and her emerald eyes smouldered as she looked into his.

"Would you really have given me to the priest for the night, in payment?" she whispered fiercely.

He stared into her eyes for several moments, then shrugged. "I doubt it. You are far too choice a prize to waste on a mere recovery from near death."

"And you, Karal Ironhand, are a pig."

Then she laughed, pulling his arms around her waist, cuddling into his hard body.

"Make love to me before we sleep." she whispered as she lay back on the pallet.


Wildhand rode fifty paces ahead of the party, her eyes searching the foliage on each side of the narrow track. There were rustles and low animal noises coming from the bracken that grew between the trees. Occasionally a serpent would slither across the muddy track causing her horse to skitter until it passed from sight. Once a larger creature crashed through the undergrowth and Flame heard the coughing growl of a large cat. It was unlikely that ruffians would set ambush in such dismal surroundings, but it would be foolish to totally discount that possibility so she remained alert, her eyes peering into the verdant tangle. Karal rode side to side with Rasmadus, discussing the virtues of Kronos versus the decadence of Kaotis. The priest was in fine mood, not losing his temper once as Karal assailed the doctrines of Kaotis while beatifying Kronos with gusto. Slink still struggled with his mount, his buttocks now bearing a deep, sullen ache that flowered in a splash of agony each time the pony's hooves slipped in the mire. How could anything stuffed with hay be so damn hard? he thought to himself. Glumly he thought of the salve in his saddle-bag that would soothe away the ache in his behind once applied. Unfortunately he couldn't use it until the group camped for the night because the remedy would only work when coupled with complete resting of the injured portion of his anatomy. Ah for a comfortable bench in a tavern somewhere and a bottomless purse, and the pox on all horses.

Finally, in the middle of the afternoon, the winding track came to an end. Flame pulled her mount before entering the clearing, keeping under the canopy as she studied the open ground beyond. Karal nudged in beside her while Slink and the priest brought up the rear. Wildhand pointed to her left and Karal followed the finger with his eyes. A dark rider sat on his mount some distance away, still as a statue, gazing in their direction.

"What do you make of it?" he asked, squinting against the stronger light beyond the forest.

"Deathknight." Said Flame through clenched teeth. "Where are they coming from? Does it not take a necromancer of some note to animate those demons?"

"Aye." Karal nodded. He beckoned the priest, who dismounted as his horse was unable to squeeze in beside the other two. Stepping gingerly through the mud he walked beside Karal's mount and peered in the direction the other two were looking.

"Deathknight." Karal explained.

The priest peered at the rider for a few moments. Suddenly he muttered a power phrase in a guttural tongue. One bony hand snaked out and he made a clutching gesture, snatching the hand back towards him. Suddenly it seemed that the Deathknight was no more than a few arm lengths away. Karal could see every fine detail of the corpse and the hippodaemon that it rode.

"What? How..." He stammered, pulling back on the reins, making the Clydesdale take a pace backwards into the gloom of the forest. Flame's mount reared, snorting, then crashed its hooves several times into the muddy track.

"Spell of long-seeing." Slink called to them. "Calm your mounts. The Deathknight cannot see us as we see him for his perspective remains unchanged."

Karal scowled at the cleric, who shrugged an apology. "Forgive me. I thought you two were straining your eyes, so I arranged that you could see more clearly. The spell will dissipate in a few moments, so if you wish to take advantage..."

Both warriors studied the Deathknight. It was indeed a rare opportunity to see one up this close that wasn't trying to remove your head. He wore the crest of the Nightbrood on his cuirass. It was of a malevolent bat-like face with burning ruby eyes and a leering, lip-less mouth from which protruded two scythe-like fangs. A similar crest appeared on his shield, while his helm had bat wing protuberances each side of his head. His own eyes were empty with red flames burning deep in the ruins of his face. Flesh was peeling away from his jowls and the warriors could see teeth and jawbone through the rend. In his right hand he clutched a giant scimitar, a good five feet long with a broad curved blade that culminated in a hooked point. It was a cleaving weapon that would tear through armour and flesh with ease and so heavy as to be difficult to turn with a mere broadsword.

"Would that we had a heavy crossbow." Karal mused.

"With silver quarrels." Flame added, shuddering at the dead thing that guarded the clearing.

"Charge him?" Flame enquired. There was a metallic sigh as she drew her war-blade from its scabbard.

Karal's blade hissed as it cleared its reinforced leather sheath. "Go left. I'll go right."

"One moment." The Cleric's voice sounded rather loud and the two warriors realised they had almost been whispering. Both turned to the priest.

"It seems that there would be some advantage in an unseen approach."

"Indeed there would." Karal answered curtly. "But as you see, there is no cover."

"Permit me to cover you with a spell and you will be unseen until quite close." Without awaiting a reply the cleric spoke his spell and gesticulated. A strange shimmer appeared in the air around the couple and slowly they faded from sight leaving only the shimmer.

"The spell has only short duration, so hurry." The priest warned them, reaching out and slapping an invisible horse flank. Karal's horse whinnied at the blow and hoof marks appeared in the undisturbed mud beyond the canopy of leaves. The Deathknight's image had receded back to its original position a few hundred paces away as the spell of long-seeing wore off. More hoof marks appeared in the mud beyond the fringe of the forest. A dull, thudding, cantering noise indicated that the two had ridden into the clearing. Slink's eyes peered anxiously across the clearing. He saw no indication that his friends were riding across the glade; but then neither did the Deathknight, for he did not move.

Rasmadus chuckled with glee, clapping his bony hands together as his dark eyes followed the faint turbulence in the air that was the only mark of the riders' passage. Suddenly the Deathknight wheeled in the saddle, turning first one way then swiftly the other as he searched for the sound of hooves galloping towards him. He lifted his scimitar as he searched. Unsure of where his foes were, he was unready for the fierce blows that befell him as both Ironblood and Wildhand struck on opposite sides. The dead knight in his heavy ancient armour jerked first one way then the other and a tear appeared under his left arm, over his left breast, as a broadsword tore through his cuirass. A split second later the other blade crashed against his helm tearing his head from his shoulders. Great gouts of black, evil smelling blood pulsed from the severed stump of his neck and the great blade fell from nerveless fingers. The torso toppled off the hippodaemon to fall, smoking, upon the ground. A stench of corruption fouled the air as the corpse rapidly decomposed while the hippodaemon screamed its rage, shaking its head from side to side, spewing flame from its nostrils. The spell wore off and the two riders blinked into view. Flame was circling her horse counter-clockwise, her blade swinging in lazy circles over her head. Karal had wheeled his pony and was charging back at the hippodaemon with his war-blade swept back high over his right shoulder. The hell horse screamed once more and leapt into the air, galloping madly for the safety of the clouds.

Both warriors were examining the Deathknight when Slink and Rasmadus arrived. The ancient armour had deteriorated badly to the extent that there were great jagged holes ringed with crusted red rust. The Nightbrood crest had faded to a point where it was colourless and almost illegible. Within the armour lay a jumbled collection of bones, bleached by two centuries of weather while the great scimitar had rusted to a mere lump. Flame had retrieved the helm and was studying the skull contained therein.

"See the teeth." She exclaimed holding the grisly object out for inspection.

The others craned their necks and saw to what she was referring; the elongated canine teeth of the long dead warrior looked like those of a wolf.

"Vampyre." Said Flame and shuddered. The undead creatures were scarce in the land these days, having been virtually wiped out during the War of Attrition two centuries ago, the period to which the dead warrior belonged.

"Good thing you beheaded it." Karal muttered making the sign of Kronos over his breast. "Old tales have it that it is one of the few ways to lay these demons to rest."

"Aye." The priest agreed, gently taking the skull out of Flame's hands. "And the skull must be destroyed to ensure it cannot be resurrected."

He tipped the bleached bony dome out of the helm, onto the ground, and brought a booted foot down upon it with considerable force. The skull shattered into small shards and powder, and the priest ground the debris into the mud until it disappeared, mingled in with the mire.

"Let us ride." He said, turning towards his mount. Flame glanced at Karal, an annoyed look on her face.

"What makes him the party leader?" She complained.

Karal shrugged, a faint smile playing on his lips, and replied; "He does have a certain magic."


Evening settled a gloomy shroud over the monolithic structure that was Sombre Rock castle. The group had ridden out of the forest and now sat on their mounts gazing at the dark smudge against a rapidly darkening sky. It appeared carved from a single obsidian block. Its battlements and towers were teeth chewing at the sky, the walls flaring out at ground level as if bedded in the very heart-rock of the world. No lights showed. Neither from the towers nor from the main bulk of the keep, nor was there any sign of life. No guards walked the battlements nor stood vigilance outside the main portcullis. Strange shapes fluttered over the castle, high in the darkening sky. Unnatural shapes that defied definition; shapes that could not be seen in direct vision but only in the peripheral. Flame shuddered as she concentrated on them from the edge of her eye. She got the impression of misshapen dragons or perhaps harpies. Demons with bat-like wings and leering maws. Slug like creatures dribbling foetid slime, floating on kite-like membranes...She closed her eyes, blinking mentally to rid her mind of the nightmare apparitions. Karal made a disapproving noise, shaking his head to clear out similar images. He turned to the priest and spoke. "Are they real?"

"What is real?" the skinny cleric countered. He straightened himself in the saddle, eyes peering into the gloom. "Nether world denizens of lower order, I'd say. Easily defeated with simple wards."

"You see them in your direct vision?" Flame asked.

"Aye. It is a trick, but not difficult."

"Then describe their appearance. To me they shift shape and have no definition."

"Such is their appearance." The priest replied. "Now, I would suggest we return to the forest and await daybreak before venturing into the castle."

Slink grabbed the priest by the arm, speaking in a harsh whisper. "You mean we still go in there? What of the magic that wards the place?"

"There are counter spells for all spells." The priest replied, turning his mount to ride back along the track they had just followed.

A strange terror gripped their souls preventing them from sleeping. Even the two warriors, both having faced imminent death a hundred times, felt a dread that iced their bones and caused their muscles to cramp. Both crouched with swords drawn gazing into the darkness. The priest sat huddled in his robe muttering wards in a constant drone while Slink pressed himself against the bole of a tree trying to blend with the wood. They had no fire, as the group did not want to attract attention from the castle that, although screened by trees, was only a short distance away.

"Karal. Yonder!" Flame's voice carried the taint of fear and the hand that clutched her companion's arm was squeezing tighter than he would normally have expected from her. He turned to seek the object of her fear and felt his heart crunch painfully in his chest. Not more than a few paces away an apparition floated in the darkness; a smoky figure with billowing shroud as if blown about in an ethereal wind. The face appeared tortured; the mouth open in a silent, hideous scream while skeletal hands clawed at staring eyes. Slowly it turned its pain-racked face until it was staring at the two. Its hands dropped from its face and it stretched one out, pointing with a bony finger at the warriors.

"Death." It whispered, mouth not moving. "Horrible death and eternal torture for your souls." Suddenly it threw both arms into the air and screamed, tipping back its head. The sound was so high pitched and unexpected that Karal felt an icy hand simultaneously clutch at his heart and run up his spine. Flame let out an involuntary shriek. Her hand, still on Karal's arm, contracted, her fingers digging painfully into his flesh. The priest whirled, over balanced and tumbled untidily to the ground while Slink collapsed to the ground in a dead faint.

"It's not real." Karal shouted, his free hand shaking Flame. She let go of his arm and propelled herself to her feet. There was a metallic whisper as her broadsword left its sheath, drawn as she charged the ghost. Karal had followed her move and his sword came free a split second later. Flame's swing was vicious in the extreme, carrying with it the anger and embarrassment at her own, momentary, show of weakness. The blade whistled as it cleaved air, passing straight through the ghost, the lack of resistance to the blow throwing Flame off balance. She staggered into the apparition. It vanished. From behind Karal came a low, heart rending moan. He spun, seeking the source, and saw another shade reaching for the priest. Sprinting the few steps to put him within reach, he swung a horizontal cut at the thing. It ignored him as his blade passed through its body without damage or resistance. Rasmadus faced the ghost, thrust out his hand, palm forward, and spoke a word of power. The ghost stopped dead in the air, screamed and vanished.

"Behind you!" Flame's cry made Karal spin on his heel. She was batting at two more of the things with no effect, backing up step by step as the ghosts reached for her. Another spectre was reaching for him; would have touched him within the second where it not for Flame's warning. He leapt back out of its reach, fanning it with his blade. Again the priest spoke his power word, shouting it this time:

"Nygarr T'yellq!" And the spectres vanished leaving the clearing silent and dark.

Flame joined Karal. She was breathing hard, her mouth open as she panted for air. Karal was also gasping and he knew it was their fear, not the exercise, that caused it.

"Kronos take me!" Flame swore. "That thing unnerved me momentarily."

"Aye, beloved. And me. I have never known such fear, and of what?"

The priest joined them, laying a hand on each of their shoulders.

"Be not ashamed that you were afraid. It was a fear spell put on us by the one who sent the ghosts. I have broken the spell and cast one to dispel any further such effort."

"And the ghosts?" Flame asked, pointing where the last two had been as she fought them.

"Oh, they were real enough." The priest threw a side glance at Karal as he confirmed this. "Soul suckers. Called here from beyond."

"Soul suckers? I like not the sound of that name." Karal muttered, sheathing his blade.

"And nor should you. They have the power to drain your life force should they manage to touch you."

"Yet I fell into one and it merely vanished." Flame observed. Her breathing had returned to normal and all signs of fear had left her. She stood with her head slightly cocked and Karal could see her red hair cascade over her shoulder. He glanced at the sky, seeing the first of dawn's light colouring the clouds overhead. The night was over.

Rasmadus reached towards Flame, his thin fingers catching at a locket about her neck. He cupped the trinket in his hand and studied it in the pale, new light.

"An argent amulet?" He asked.

"Aye. 'tis the Eye of Feydona, Goddess of the Moon. It was my mother's, given to me as she lay upon her deathbed."

"And of service to you this night, dear Flame. The moon goddess has power over shades, and an argent touch does banish them to their plane. You were twice blessed."

A torturous groan made the three turn about. Karal began drawing his weapon again expecting further battle with the spectres. He relaxed and pushed the blade back into its scabbard as he saw the source of the unearthly sound. Slink was sitting under the tree nursing his head with both hands, his face contorted in pain and misery.

"Mirak! My head. It feels as if I've quaffed a barrel of ale. What happened to the ghost?"

"It is well, thief. They are gone. Here, allow me." Rasmadus crossed to Slink and lay a bony hand upon the thief's brow, muttering a short canticle. The pain disappeared from Slink's head as if the priest's hand had sucked it out.


Even with the morning sun shining upon it, the citadel looked forbidding. By daylight it seemed somehow smaller, though still towering above the land, and still as black as midnight. One compensation was that, instead of the nightmarish shape-shifters they had seen the previous night, only ordinary fowl flew over its battlements. Black crows cawing as they wheeled in the fresh blue sky beneath the morning sun. The drawbridge was down, the portcullis open, yet still no guards walked the battlements or stood post near the entrance.

"It seems a stealthy approach is out of the question so, since the open gate invites us in, let us take that option." Slink observed. He had scouted the perimeter of the keep visually just after dawn and concluded that, short of scaling the walls, there was no other entrance.

"It is a trap." Flame concluded, her voice matter-of-fact, her right hand clenching the haft of her blade.

"Aye, it may well be. Yet it may also be that visitors are deterred in less mundane fashion." Karal mused.

"I can scan for mechanical traps and pitfalls as we approach." Slink suggested.

"And I for magical ones." Added Rasmadus.

"So it is agreed? We walk in through the front door?" Slink was rubbing his hands, his mind seeing a room bulging with gold and gems.

"Aye, so be it, but beware of possible ambush." Flame muttered, still fingering her sword, her eyes scanning the structure. The others nodded consent and the party moved towards the castle.

As they crossed the drawbridge the group observed the moat. In it they could see filthy, evil smelling water, dark grey in colour. Large patches of flotsam, composed of bits of timber, scum and dead things, floated in it. Malodorous vapours rising from the pit encouraged the group to hold their breath while crossing quickly to the courtyard of the keep.

Slink surveyed the courtyard noting the drifts of accumulated rubbish. The area was devoid of animal or human life. The stables stood abandoned, doors awry, the doorways staring blankly into the yard. Here and there lay scattered bones, mingled with armour rusted to nondescript brown cusps bearing weathered, jagged edges. Buildings that might once have been barracks, blacksmith shops and other public facilities were now mere tumbles of fallen masonry and rotting timbers. The keep itself appeared intact. It rose from the cobbled yard, towering high into the sky, its facade black and menacing. A wide staircase swept up to a ramp about the height of two men above the yard. The ramp thrust straight into the throat of the large double doorway that accessed the inner sanctum. Two massive doors, constructed of thick black timbers bound by wide strips of bronze and heavily studded with the same metal, hung open on huge bronze hinges affording entry to whoever wished to walk inside.

Normally the ramp would be withdrawn into the structure denying access through the doorway but now the party walked across it and into the foyer. Still no challenge.

"Perhaps Greychant isn't in?" Karal said, his eyes studying the layout of the great antechamber.

"He's in. I feel his power." Rasmadus confirmed. A stone walkway ringed the antechamber some twenty feet above the floor. Arrow slots, set in a low stone wall at regular intervals, protected the stone walkway from attack from below. Access to the walkway was by removable ladders that were now in place; large wooden steps constructed of dark oak.

"This would have been a sweet fortress to storm." Flame commented as her warrior's eye appreciated the defences. She had her broadsword in hand and was circling slowly as she angled towards one of the steps.

A loud double boom sounded, echoing through the chamber as if a doomsday bell had tolled. The party swung around as one to see that the large oaken doors had cut off their exit to the outside of the keep. Immediately the light within the antechamber dimmed to twilight intensity and strange, far off sounds echoed at the corner of their minds. Flame and Karal moved back to back, circling slowly to view the whole room. Slink drew wurmfang and crouched. Although terrified, he remained determined not to show it and to fight like a trapped rat if he had to. Rasmadus muttered a spell that caused a faint, bluish glow to encase his body as his dark eyes searched the gathering gloom for opponents. A mist was growing in one corner of the hall and a war chant in many voices began to rise, first as a far off whisper of sound, then rising to an angry crescendo. Shape began to materialise in the mist. The two warriors hefted their swords, feet shuffling, as they readied themselves for battle. A warrior dressed in ancient armour stepped from the mist. His eyes burnt like the fires of hell and he carried a giant, serrated war blade, curved like a scimitar, clutched in his desiccated right hand. His face was skeletal with bits of parchment-like skin flapping from the cheekbones as he trotted towards the adventurers. Another bony adversary stepped from the mist, then another and another. Soon a veritable army marched towards the group. An army of long dead, rotting warriors dressed in armour and costumes from numerous periods in history, bearing and assorted array of weaponry from crude maces to halberds, spears and swords.

The first few corpse-soldiers reached their position, flailing and hacking with their weapons. Flame and Karal joined them in battle, Karal blocking the serrated scimitar swinging at his head. His blade met that weapon in a load clash of steel. Drawing the broadsword away, he plunged it into the warrior's body cutting up as the blade sank home. Black, putrid fluids burst from the rend and the creature staggered back into the throng. An axe descended at his head, while a spear prodded towards him, the point grazing his side as he ducked out of its way. His blade turned the other weapon as he side stepped, swinging viciously, grunting in satisfaction as a severed arm spun away gushing stinking black blood.

Flame's hair was like living fire, billowing out around her head as she spun and chopped at the massed forces. Helmets and heads toppled, rolling underfoot, and limbs flew asunder. Her battle cry sounded above the mewling and groaning of the animated army as she chopped and parried viciously. Slink ducked weapons while thrusting wurmfang into exposed bodies and dead faces, drawing the black, vile smelling blood with every stroke. Rasmadus was absent from the melee. He had moved back to the relative safety afforded by the battling trio and was muttering his spell. As the incantation reached its climax, the priest thrust out both hands, fingers splayed, in a pushing gesture towards the tangle of battling corpses. Screams issued from dead throats as the cadavers writhed in supernatural agony. One by one they began disappearing, vanishing with small, wet popping sounds until only a half dozen faced the three combatants. Slink's dagger found the throat of the nearest before it could get its spear to bear. Black blood flowed and the corpse succumbed to final death, crumbling as it fell to the floor. Flame's sword dispatched another, a warrior so ancient he was wearing only leather cuirass and skirt reinforced with bone and wielding a wooden mace no better than a club. Karal was trading blows with three armed with swords and dressed in imperial chain mail of recent times. Their torn and grave-stained surcoats identified them as being of the Dragon Guards, the kingdom's most elite. He parried their professional thrusts and blows, cutting under their guard and inflicting countless cuts to their limbs and neck without managing to deliver a killing blow. Flame ignored the lone warrior that swept at her with his halberd, leaving him for Slink to despatch. Instead she waded into the fray, assisting Karal, her sword slashing under the defences of one warrior, chopping deeply into his ribcage. The cadaver screamed in fury as his ribs crushed inwards, the wound spilling blood and bits of organs as Flame's blade exited. Turning upon the red-haired warrior, the dead warrior renewed his attack ignoring the flow of vital parts from the gaping wound. Wildhand ducked his sweeping blade and cut at his legs, severing the calf of the right leg just below the knee. This caused the warrior to topple sideways right into the path of Karal's sweeping blade. The creature's head flew away to one side as the torso crashed to the floor. Both Karal and Flame turned their attack to the remaining two creatures, quickly dispatching them back to the land of the dead. Slink, meanwhile, had finished off the other warrior and was now standing bent over, hands on knees, breathing hard, his dagger sheathed. Rasmadus walked towards them enquiring as to their health.

"Is anyone hurt? Do you need healing?" He asked anxiously.

Flame grinned at the old priest, her arm encircling his shoulders as she placed a huge, wet kiss on his cheek.

"Nay, priest. Merely scratched. Mainly whole thanks to your spell. What did you do to them?"

Rasmadus shrugged. "Nothing much. They were creatures of chaos, easily dispelled by a priest of chaos using a spell of turning the undead."

The group looked around the antechamber. All was still. The bodies, the armour and even the weapons had dissolved into dust leaving the area clear of any signs that a battle had occurred only moments before.

"Into the inner sanctum?" Karal asked, pointing up the steps.

"Aye, lover. I take objection to being set upon by conjured corpses. Let me find the author of such spells against me and I shall test my blade against his hide." Flame was cleaning that very blade as she spoke the words. Her eyes studied the door set in the wall at the top of the stairs. Slink also looked in that direction. "I think it is not even locked." He announced, his voice denoting a slight disappointment that his lock-picking talents were not required.

"Then let us accept the invitation. I yearn to meet our host." Flame replied, her booted foot already upon the lower step.


It was as Slink had predicted. Karal grasped the simple iron latch and twisted it. With a groan from hinges long neglected, the door swung open to reveal a wide passage. In the walls on either side, doors indicated rooms located off the main passage. Many tapestries, weapons and armour were displayed along the passage; some fixed to the walls, some mounted on pedestals recessed in what may once have been guard stations. There were no guards. The area felt shrouded with an atmosphere of despair and neglect.

Karal stepped into the hall, followed closely by Slink and the priest. Flame backed into the passageway, her eyes scanning their rear for possible ambush.

"He's close." Rasmadus whispered. His hands work furiously as he wove his spells. Invisible magical pulses searched the hallway in effort to locate adversaries protected or hidden by sorcery. Fat spiders and sleek rodents scuttled about seeking sanctuary in the nooks and crannies, startled by the intrusion of the humans. Slink's long nose quivered as they moved towards the first door. He stopped suddenly, arms outstretched, silently warning the group to stop. Alone he crept forward, hunched down, his dark eyes peering at the ground.

"Pit trap." he grunted, pointing at a faint rectangular crack in the stonework of the floor. Karal cautiously joined him, also looking at the spot Slink pointed to.

"I see nothing." he commented.

Slink knelt down and began tracing the faint line with one finger. "See here? The stones meet in a line too straight for too long a distance." He picked another spot at random, pointing to the way the stones were placed together. "See there. The stones are irregularly placed to give them greater bonding strength."

He stood up, dusting his hands together. "Had you placed your weight upon that place before me, you would no doubt have fallen into a cellar." He cautiously placed one foot on the spot and thrust down firmly, rocking back immediately to keep his balance. With a loud scraping sound the section split in the centre, each half folding downwards, revealing a black hole two paces wide by two paces long. At the bottom Karal could just make out the mat of wicked spikes that reached upwards, ready to skewer any unfortunate falling in.

"My thanks, Slink. That would have taken one of us at least had you not been so astute."

"A good thief needs to be able to recognise traps." replied the thief.

Flame had skirted the hole and was at the first door on the left side of the passage. "Are you two coming?" She enquired, pushing at the door.


Eyes blazed in the darkness. Yellow and filled with hate they probed, scanning slowly from side to side. From out of the gloom a hand descended upon the head containing the glowing orbs. Twisted and arthritic, with long black fingernails, it began scratching at scale covered bone. The creature rumbled deep in its throat and a tendril of sulphurous smoke trickled lazily from a nostril.

"So they have eluded my deathknights, vanquished my soul suckers and invaded my keep. Not even my Army of the Damned fazed them. Well, so be it, my pet."

A sodium-hued glow sprang into being illuminating Greychant in its amber light. He was smiling down at the miniature wyvern cradled in his left arm as he stroked its brow with his right hand.

"I shall summon the demon, Yaathnaronz, to deal with them. Come, Hiss, I have an incantation to prepare." The wyvern leapt from Greychant's arm, spreading bat-like wings and flapping up towards the raked rafters. Greychant left the creature to find a roost while he returned to his spell chamber.

Inside the chamber a huge pentagram dominated the floor and Greychant walked purposefully to its centre where his spell book lay. Black candles, fashioned out of corpse fat, burst into life. Sputtering greenish flame caused dancing shadows that cavorted in obscene dances and gave off an offensive odour. Dark whispering filled the room suggesting evil deeds, promising evil pleasure in sibilant tones. The sorcerer ignored the lure of the voices. He searched the black tome, nodding his head as the spell was revealed. Even the lascivious voices fell silent as he invoked that terrible spell.

Somewhere deep in the bowels of hell a demon stirred. His grotesque head turned, features scowling, as the summons pulled at him. Yaathnaronz howled with rage as he transcended to the plane from whence came the call.


Rubbish littered the floor. Old straw mixed with the droppings of rodents lay in drifts while tassels of spider web hung from the ceiling. Rasmadus cast a light spell while the two warriors scrutinised the room for enemies. Slink was pressing his ear to the wall, walking slowly along its face, eyes and hands searching for hidden springs or levers.

"It appears that this room is bare." He announced at last, wiping spider web and dust from his ear. The warriors had relaxed somewhat and Karal began scuffing at a loose pile of straw with one boot. His leather toe connected with something hard and hollow that rolled out into the light. It was a mouldy skull, resting now with vacant eye sockets staring blindly at the ceiling.

"Guest of Greychants, perhaps?" Karal quipped, rolling the bony dome under his boot.

"If that is how he treats guests, I shudder to think what he is like with an enemy." Flame returned. Rasmadus made a quick gesture involving a hand-snatch and the light disappeared leaving them standing in the gloom.

"Let's continue. Magic is energy and mine is not without limit."

Back in the hall, Slink probed ahead to ensure there were no further pit traps. Behind him the others flung open doors, peered inside, then continuing on when they found the rooms as deserted as the first.

"Interesting." Slink said suddenly. He had stopped and the other three likewise came to a halt behind him.

"What is it? Another pit trap?" Rasmadus asked.

"Nay, no pit trap. See the interesting pattern set within the floor?"

The magician looked where Slink pointed and saw that there were stones placed seemingly at random that were of a different shade to the rest of the flooring. The phenomenon only began at this point, about halfway along the hall.

"What do you think of it?" Flame asked the thief. He shook his head, his rodent-like eyes searching ahead.

"I can only vaguely see the wall at the end of the passage. Can you illuminate it for me, priest?"

"In a flash." The old man replied, "Pun not intended."

The light spell illuminated all of the remaining area between the party and the far wall. Slink smiled, nodding his hooded head as his eyes saw the huge shield hanging upon the wall. The face of a snarling tiger, embossed in gold and ebony upon its surface, faced them.

"Back against the wall." He ordered. Hastily the group complied, watching as Slink approached one of the mismatched stones. Slink stamped hard upon the stone, then threw himself against the wall. A metallic 'sproing' sounded from behind the shield and a fast moving shadow flew from the maw of the tiger, travelling at about chest height. The spear was fitted with a heavy wooden haft, its head made of shiny steel worked into wicked, tearing barbs. A hit with this weapon would be instantly lethal. Now, due to Slink's timely warning, it flew harmlessly past the group and clattered onto the stone floor some distance behind them, its energy spent.

"Nasty." Flame observed, pushing herself from the wall.

"Any chance of more?" Karal asked.

"I doubt it," assured the thief, "the mouth of the tiger is too small for more than one to be fitted and this device is mechanical, not magical."

Rasmadus made the sign of Kaotis, breathing a quick prayer to his dark god. "Let us be off...and I'll leave the light on. Damn the energy it uses."


As the door opened Slink knew they had found the room. Firstly it was the only room so far that was illuminated, albeit with a pale green light. Secondly, it was the only room so far that was clean and furnished. A fire blazed in the hearth although nothing was there for it to burn, yet the yellow and orange flames flickered as cheerily as any hearth fire. In the centre of the room was a dais about knee high, crafted from a single crystal that reflected the green glow in soft verdant beams, splashing the walls in emerald spotlights. Above the dais hung a sword. It was a two handed great-sword, its blade two thirds the length of a man. Each edge was concave twice with the widest part in the centre of the blade creating two points, one per edge. The cross-piece angled outwards and downwards, curving forward to create two nasty looking blades, each a hand long, on each side of the main blade. The hilt of the weapon was fitted with tightly bound wire to enhance the grip while the pommel was crafted into a demon's claw clutching a strange multi-faceted jewel.

Slink whistled as he viewed the weapon. "So this is Darksoul?" he intoned. At the end of the pommel the strange jewel pulsed with a black-green light. Dark rays of radiance shot from it, a sickly light that was was torturous to the eyes. The rest of the sword was of a similar black-green colour, crafted of a metal no man had ever seen.

"Let us take it and get out of here." Karal said through gritted teeth. He stepped forward, intent on mounting the dais. Slink pulled at his sleeve.

"Wait! It may be trapped. Let me look."

"Make swift then, thief." Replied Karal. His eyes were riveted on the blade as the thief moved forward to inspect the set-up. Moments later he rejoined the big warrior, standing directly before him with hands on hips.

"Before you get your sword, my friend, there is a question of some gems. Buckets full, if I recall."

Karal grinned at his friend. "Did I say buckets full? Well, it may have been a tiny exaggeration."

"Exaggeration!" The thief exploded. "How much of an exaggeration?"

Karal stepped back a pace as his friend's eyes took on a murderous gleam.

"Well, there are somewhat less than I promised." he stammered. "A lot less, actually."

"How less?" Shouted the thief, hands waving in the air.

"None, actually."

"Tell me you didn't say 'none.' Tell me that you didn't. How many gems are there?"

"Well, you would not have come if I had been honest with you."

Flame broke into the argument; "It seems you have misled your friend, Karal, but I think it should be topic for later discussion. Get the blade and let us leave."

Karal gave Flame a grateful glance, gently pushing Slink aside with a sweep of his muscular arm, and ascended the dais. The strange green flames bathed him causing leprous shadows to crawl over him. His hand grasped the hilt of the sword and drew the big blade towards him, tilting it upright as he did so. Green light flared, intensified. Karals features twisted in black-green shadow and his countenance began to change. Eyes slanted slightly, grew cruel and hard. His brow broadened, hair receding on the temples, blanching visibly. His mouth twisted into an evil grin revealing canines that grew longer, more wolf-like, as the others watched. An ancient battle-cry reverberated throughout the cavern. Boruz Cruelhand surveyed the three beings before him.

"It seems it was a trap." Slink observed, drawing wurmfang.

Flame Wildhand had her hand on her sword hilt. She had half drawn it and stopped in confusion as she looked at the man that had been her lover and companion, but now stood there, a stranger.

"Karal? What is happening? Karal, speak to me."

"He must release the sword." Rasmadus shouted. He had moved back, behind Flame and Slink, so that he could conjure his spells in relative safety.

"Put down the sword, Karal," yelled the priest, "it is cursed.".

"The sword is mine!" Boomed a voice that was not Karals, but Cruelhand's. Evil radiated from his eyes as he stepped down from the dais. He raised the sword, moving purposefully towards Flame. She drew her own blade, stepping back from the apparition that was once her friend. "Karal? Put down your sword."

"Do you think you can take my blade from me, puny one?"

Muscle flexed. Black green metal blurred and the great sword screamed like a tortured soul as it arched towards Flame Wildhand's head. She brought her blade up to parry the blow and gasped as the two metals met. Energy crackled. Cold, hellish energy that reminded her of rotting flesh. Putrescent swirls of gangrenous light wrapped about her blade, soaked into the metal and ran up into her arm, instantly turning it numb with cold. Flame staggered away from the berserker that had once been her friend and lover. Still not wishing to harm him she held her blade purely defensively and braced herself as the maddened fighter swung again. More vile webs of energy entered her and now she felt her strength failing, her arm beginning to burn with cold. Slink had wurmfang and was circling her opponent, looking for the chance to back-stab him, his eyes seeking contact with hers. Within his gaze lay the question, awaiting her answer...her permission. Should I stab him? Oh, Mirak, should I stab him?

Flame's eyes swam with tears as she saw he was not going to abate his attack. Clamping her bottom lip between her teeth she went on the offensive.


Yaathnaronz glowered at the sorcerer with glowing ember eyes. Greychant stood at the heart of his pentagram, his features hidden in the depths of the black cowl he wore over his head. Bright, almost luminescent eyes gazed fearlessly at the hellish nightmare that had manifested in the room. A stinking yellow fog swirled around the misshapen thing looking somewhat like a bear, somewhat like a reptile, but actually nothing like any creature nature had put together.

"Why do you call me from my pit of despair, mortal? Do you wish to sample the horror of my wrath?" Row upon row of teeth travelled from the front of his horrible maw, back into his throat, moving like a conveyer belt. They were shark-like, triangular teeth filling his mouth, but as Greychant watched, they became more like that of a crocodile before changing again, appearing large and canine-like as would a bear's. Ever changing, always moving, the demon's mouth was terrifying to look at.

"I bring you forth to feed you souls, great Yaathnaronz. There are those that would steal what is rightfully mine."

"Bah! You have nothing of value! Merely trinkets. Toys to keep you amused during your fleeting existence. I should tear you into meaty morsels and devour you a piece at a time for disturbing me."

"Seek those who intrude and take them for your sport, then I shall release you so you may return to your plane."

"Impudent mortal! Pray your wards be strong, or I shall have you to play with in the Great Torment." The demon vanished, leaving behind a sulphurous stink that swirled like a miniature yellow fog.


Flame was on one knee, gasping for air, her sword wavering in her strength depleted hand. Towering above her like nemesis Karal/Boruz raised his hell-blade high above his head to deliver the final death stroke. His mouth twisted in a cruel grin, his biceps bulged with power. Rasmadus cast a hasty spell, trying to transfer some of his energy into the weakened body of Flame Wildhand, but the charge seemed to sink into her drained form and dissipate immediately. Desperately he sought to cover her with a shield spell, but the blue corona that enveloped her winked out the moment it formed, its energy sucked away by the scabrous blade. Suddenly the big warrior's eyes widened in surprise and he emitted a loud howl of pain. His intended victim momentarily forgotten, he whirled around in time to see the skinny man, dressed in cape and cowl, scamper back into the shadows. A thin face with beady eyes and a long thin nose, shadowed by that cowl, was all he could see and the dagger that glinted in the small man's right hand. Pain burnt into his body and he could feel wetness trickling down his back.

"Worm. You will die for that!" Boruz screamed, dashing after the fleeing thief, Darksoul wailing and moaning as he whirled it over his head.

Slink dodged the huge sword, leaping as he ran. Behind him the blade crashed into the stone floor sending up a shower of dark green sparks. He was clutching wurmfang as he fled, hoping against hope that he would get the chance to stab again, or at least try to launch the dagger at the giant's throat. Again he ducked, turning to run the way he had come as the great blade whistled past his head. He saw that Flame was on her feet, sword ready, facing the oncoming pair. Slink ran past her and came to a skidding halt near the priest. He spun to face the evil warrior, his knees slightly bent, wurmfang thrust out in front of him.

Wildhand ducked under the wild swing, bringing her sword up hard at a sharp angle, point aimed for the berserker's midriff, just below the ribs. Boruz had put all his rage into the sweeping blow. When it sailed over the female's head, he found himself over balanced with his belly exposed and without any hope of recovering the huge war blade. Three feet of steel entered his belly, angling up under the ribs, tearing at his lung, his aorta. Bright red blood gushed from the tearing wound.

"Karal! Oh, Karal, I'm sorry." Flame wept as she withdrew her blade, tears spilling from both eyes. As the bloody blade withdrew from the wound she dropped it on the ground with a clatter and stepped forward to catch the falling warrior in her arms. Darksoul fell from his fingers making a loud clanging sound as it hit the stone floor, skidding away from the two fighters. Flame sank down onto her knees allowing the other warrior's head to fall into her lap. His eyes were open but registered puzzlement, shock. As she watched the hair darkened and the eyes grew rounder, more blue, until Boruz was gone and Karal lay in her lap, blood bubbling from his mouth and nose.

" s...sword! Evil...What happened?" He twisted his head to look down where he clutched tightly at his belly. Slowly he rolled his hand back to reveal the cut that instantly gushed more blood.

"I'm sorely wounded." He whispered. His head tipped back until he was looking into Flame's eyes. "Kiss me, my beloved. I think I hear Kronos calling my name."

Flame turned her tear stained face towards the priest. "Rasmadus! Aid me. He is dying."

Rasmadus hurried over and knelt next to the two. Quickly he placed his hands on the warrior's forehead, closing his eyes and mumbling a prayer. Chanting to his dark god, Rasmadus moved over the dying man's head, neck and torso letting his hand rest momentarily on the wound. Power surged from his hands into the warrior and all the while he chanted without pause, almost without taking breath. Karal's eyes had closed now and his breathing was irregular, shallow. He was slipping deeper into unconsciousness. His last thoughts were that he could smell brimstone. Was he then to be taken by Kaotis instead of Kronos after all?

So intent on their dying comrade was the trio that they did not see the demon appear in a swirl of sulphur. It was only his booming voice that dragged their attention to his intrusion.

"Mortals. Prepare to die, for Yaathnaronz hungers." Slink jumped several paces sideways as he became aware of the horrible thing that hovered only a few feet away from him. Flame reached for her blade that lay in a pool of congealing blood near her boot while Rasmadus stood up abruptly, making the sign of Kaotis to ward off the demon.

"Yaathnaronz?" Slink said, head cocked to one side. The demon looked at the diminutive human holding a shiny dagger before him. A shiny dagger? He knew that dagger! And the human! He turned to the thief and pointed. "I know you! You are kin to Taratheleon, are you not?"

Slink nodded. Once before he had faced this demon. He had tricked him into believing that he, Slink, was indeed kin to the ancient magi, Taratheleon, because he carried the dagger, wurmfang, a gift from Yaathnaronz to the great necromancer in return for an undisclosed service some centuries ago. It seemed that the demon had sworn an oath to aid the sorcerer's descendants to the end of time. Actually, Slink had purloined the weapon during one of his many escapades.

"And you carry the blade, wurmfang, that I once gave to the great Taratheleon. I am pledged to aid you."

"Then aid me in this, great demon. My friend is dying over there. Can you do anything to save him?"

"Save him? I am a taker of souls, not a mender of souls."

"There is a great gift if you would assist this time."

"Gift? What gift."

Slink nodded to the sword, Darksoul, which lay nearby, its putrescent green energies swirling and crawling along its length. It lay moaning softly as if in great pain.

"That. I believe your God would be very grateful for it back?"

The demon looked at the sword for several seconds, its maw open revealing the conveyer belt of teeth marching back into its throat. They represented jagged snake's teeth at this instant and Slink saw a gleaming drop of venom on more than one of them.

"By Kaotis's testicles. It is the great God's sword." He fixed his hell red gaze on the little thief and his face came as close as that monstrosity ever could to a great, beaming smile.

"An eternity of anguish was heaped upon me for its loss. I was under an enthralment when I stole it. After the mortal named Cruelhand died, the sword was lost."

"Would its return be of benefit to you?"

"It would appease Kaotis." agreed the demon.

"Then aid us."

Yaathnaronz turned his gaze on the slumped form still held cradled by Flame. She was weeping in great sobs as she caressed his pale face unconcerned with the blood flowing from his wound, drenching her.

"Does he yet live?" rumbled the demon.

"He is in extremus." replied Slink quietly.

"So be it, kinsman of Taratheleon. I will trade the soul of the human for the glaive." Sulphur smoke swirled around him as he spoke, obscuring him within its yellow folds. When it cleared, Yaathnaronz was gone.


Karal floated. All around him was a swirl of non-colour, an eddy of ectoplasm that swirled towards a common point. Faces appeared in the maelstrom; half formed, vague visages of men, women and children. Occasionally he thought he could recognise someone, but the face would swirl and meld with the rushing vortex. He knew he was dead, but was amazed at the non-sensation of it. There was no pain, no warmth, no cold. It was as if all sensations had ceased to exist, but his consciousness remained. Slowly a figure began to form nearby. A muscular warrior with cruel slanted eyes and silver hair swirling about his head. The form became clearer, more defined than any of the others. Then the apparition spoke:

"Ironblood. You and I are brothers. You drank of the power of darksoul."

"I know you not." Karal replied, but the warrior merely grinned and shook his head.

"How can you not know me? Can you not know yourself?"

"You are not me. Who are you?"

"Once I was feared by all. I commanded the greatest army that ever was. The Nightbrood."

"Boruz Cruelhand?"

"Aye. And now I come to guide you on your journey to meet Kaotis."

Karal saw they were approaching the point where the eddy disappeared. There was an aperture into which the cosmos flowed and through it shone a hot, red glow that emanated rage and pain; the atmosphere of Kaotis's domain. Karal felt a great sadness welling up inside of him as he thought of the life he had lost; of Flame, whom he had loved; of the adventures he had experienced and those he had not. He was aware that, once through the aperture, there would be no return to the world he once knew. No return to his life as a sell-sword...a wandering private soldier. He tried to resist, tried to twist away from his fate but the glowing, flickering portal was drawing him inexorably into Kaotis's realm.

A looming presence broke his reverie. Karal turned to face the newcomer. He recoiled in shock at the hulking great demon that glared at him with coal-fire eyes and mobile teeth. Mottled hide crawling with nightmare horrors covered the beast while the teeth looked stained and broken. Old man's teeth bearing the taint of too much tobacco and a minimum of care.

"Come, puny one. Yaathnaronz will guide you back to the realm of life." Halitosis made the thing's breath reek like rotting corpses, but Karal could not take his eyes from the snaggle-teeth that marched back into the creature's throat. Yaathnaronz reached out and grasped his arm above the elbow with a clawed hand that seemed to bear too many fingers, each ending in scythe-like talons.

"No, Yaathnaronz!"

The demon turned to look at the creature that had screamed its denial at him. Cruelhand glowered, his body having grown to gigantic proportions. He was holding a blade of living flame that sputtered, dripping burning globules that vanished after falling a few feet.

"Do not cross me, Cruelhand. You cannot defeat me."

"He goes to meet Kaotis. Should I lose his soul, Kaotis will be greatly displeased."

"As he was over the loss of the glaive, Darksoul? What became of Darksoul, Cruelhand?" Yaathnaronz still held onto Karal's forearm, although the warrior tried to tug free when he saw a battle between these two seemed inevitable.

"Darksoul was lost during the final purge." Cruelhand appeared to find a footing in the void and fell into a fighter's stance, swinging the burning blade in a circle over his head. "Now release the mortal, else I shall slay you."

"I think not."

Yaathnaronz hissed. A great glob of greenish-grey essence spewed from his mouth, burning like a fireball as it hurtled through the air. Cruelhand parried with the flame sword causing a great explosion of light as the blade hit the fireball. The afterglow of that fireball had not yet faded when the demon's hand (an impossible collection of cruel talons) shot forward, reaching for Boruz. His arm elongated to allow for him to reach over the distance. Cruelhand saw the coming limb too late. He tried to hack at it with the sword, but the arm was under the weapon's reach and he managed only to catch the limb with a weak blow, high near the pommel. The demon hissed in pain and fury as the blazing edge cut into his flesh spilling a smoking, puce coloured ichor from the wound.

"You dare to smite me?" Even this void, this matter-less ether, shook with the power of the demon's voice. His claws closed around Cruelhand's throat and he squeezed. The blazing sword tumbled from the hapless warrior's fingers as they sprung open in sheer shock of the pressure on his throat. It spun away in an angular direction, then snuffed out, ceasing to exist. Yaathnaronz's maw opened wide and great, twisted fangs began churning, faster than previously, taking on a metal sheen until it appeared as if row upon row of buzz saws were rotating backwards in his mouth. The extended arm contracted, pulling Cruelhand relentlessly in as if he were a fish hooked by a monstrous angler. Without pause the demon crammed the struggling, screaming warrior into the mill that was his mouth. Blood spewed to each side as Cruelhand's screams mingled with that of saws chopping into bone and meat. Then the evil warrior fell silent as he disappeared into the belly of the demon.

"Let us depart from here." Said the demon to Karal, his voice now at normal conversational level as if nothing untoward had occurred. His teeth had reverted to human like shape and their descent into his throat had slowed to a more leisurely pace.


Only a few heartbeats had elapsed before the sulphurous stink was back. Flame still cradled the fallen warrior, rocking him gently as his life ebbed away. Rasmadus hovered around her, totally at a loss what to do. Slink, who was standing back awaiting the demon's return, sniffed at the air with his long nose as the acrid yellow cloud belched into being, then cleared to reveal the grotesque shape of Yaathnaronz. Held within the tangle of claws that was the demon's right hand was a shadowy shimmer that roiled like disturbed smoke.

"You have him?" Slink peered at the twisting thing in the demon's hand but found it hard to focus upon it.

"My word, mortal. Now I need to restore it into the fallen one. It is imperative that his wounds be healed first, else the soul will flee back to the void."

Slink turned to the priest. "Rasmadus. Have you the spell to heal Ironblood's wounds?"

"Aye, I could heal his wounds."

"Then do it."

Rasmadus knelt beside the stricken warrior and began his chants, passing his hands over the terrible wound, massaging it with fingers that glowed with a soft blue light. Tissue melted together, joined and healed until only a scar marred the warrior's torso. Then even the scar vanished.

"A canteen, Slink. Give him as much water as you can get down his throat. I will provide the spell to replenish his blood."

Slink knelt on the other side of the priest, lifted Karal's head (with Flame's help) and trickled water between his blue lips. A lot spilled down the side of his wan cheeks, but some managed to trickle down into his mouth. When the canteen was dry, the priest waved Slink away and continued his ministrations, muttering prayers to Kaotis and supplying power to Karal's body. Inside, water was absorbed into the veins and became blood. The heart picked up speed, as the fluid ran through its chambers, and pushed fresh blood along the arteries to supply a severely depleted body with the life-stuff.

Karal's face took on a healthier hue, although he remained deeply comatose and near death. Finally the priest stood up, shaking his head.

"I am at the limit of my power. It is up to the demon now. Should he fail, then Karal will die."

"I do not fail." Yaathnaronz rumbled. He crossed to Flame's position, bent slightly and picked Karal up one handed, as if the large warrior were merely a rag doll. Cradling him in the palm of his many-fingered hand, he brought the shimmering, struggling shade closer until it touched Karal's body, then he pressed. The nasty tangle of fingers and claws seemed to vanish momentarily into Karal's chest, then reappeared minus the shifting shape of ectoplasm. Karal groaned loudly and twisted his head from side to side, his hand rising to rub at his head. Yaathnaronz gently placed the warrior back into his formal position, in Flame's lap, and stood back.

Flame felt for the pulse in Karal's neck. It was strong and regular and his breathing, too, had picked up. He continued to moan and roll his head for a few minutes until, suddenly, he opened his eyes. They were the eyes she remembered. Blue as the summer sky, clear and without pain.

"Flame? What happened? I thought I died."

Flame was smiling although tears flowed with renewed vigour, but this time from relief, not sorrow. "You almost did, my beloved. You almost did."

Yaathnaronz cleared his throat. It sounded like distant thunder and the others looked towards him.

"I claim my reward." He stated, reaching with his extendible arm towards the dark blade. His misshapen hand closed about the weapon's haft and the sword screamed as if in mortal agony. It appeared small in his hand; no bigger than a short sword and the energy from it, sooty black with dark green shade, billowed up to be absorbed by his arm.

"I have my prize. It is time for me to..."

A scream interrupted the demon's farewell. All eyes turned to the source. Coming through the door was the dark dwarf, Greychant. The scream had issued from the throat of the wyvern as it arrowed through the air, its fanged mouth open wide, wings beating frantically, both clawed legs extended. The creature's attack was aimed at Slink. The thief leapt to one side, drawing wurmfang and, as the creature shot past, stabbed it with the enchanted blade. The wyvern screamed in pain and frustration, belching a concoction of smoke and fire that damaged no-one.

Greychant gestured with his free left hand. In his right he held a large staff, ornately carved, its head fitted with an onyx blacker than midnight. The stone radiated a dark energy not unlike that of the sword, Darksoul. Greychant seemed to grow in stature as he soaked up the power through his hand. A bolt of energy shot from his left palm, black and crackling, and collided with the demon's chest. Yaathnaronz roared in pain and surprise as the magic chewed at his flesh. Fresh puce coloured ichor poured out of the ragged wound for several seconds, slowing to a trickle and finally stopping as the wound closed up and vanished.

With another incoherent roar the demon leapt towards the black wizard. Greychant held his ground, making another magical gesture. This time a cloud of scintillating motes enveloped the demon, each bursting like a miniature sun as it touched his flesh. Again the demon howled, dancing a grotesque jig as the energy bombs battered his flesh again and again, each explosion causing ulcerous craters to form, each leaking pus and ichor.

Karal stood up, reaching for his broadsword that was still in its scabbard, at his side. He had almost got to his feet before a wave of dizziness forced him to slump to the ground, holding his head in both hands. Flame glanced at him anxiously, then moved towards the wizard, having scooped up her sword at the time that the black dwarf had entered the room. Slink was already engaged in battle with the wyvern. The small dragon was trying to claw and fry his face while hovering in the air. Slink was trying to slash and stab at the bothersome creature with wurmfang. Rasmadus had finished his spell and now threw a pure ball of blue radiance at the wizard. It burst upon contact, releasing a blast of icy air, cold as a mountain blizzard. The wizard reeled under the blow and fumbled his spell just as Flame swiped at him with her blade.

Yaathnaronz shook himself as the last of the bothersome motes disappeared. His teeth had become large and black, barbed like spearheads. Green poison flicked off them as they churned back into his open maw. Another of his deep throated roars sounded as he charged the hapless wizard.

Greychant was in deep bother. Flame's blade had crunched into his shoulder, laying it open to the bone. Blood ran freely along his arm and into his hand making the staff slippery to hold. The ice storm spell had numbed him. He found it difficult to remember his spells, and now the demon was coming at him like a wounded buffalo. He remembered a spell and quickly intoned it. 'Blink'; and he stood off to one side of the room as the maddened demon crashed into the stone wall, shaking the keep to its foundations.

Flame whirled, running towards the wizard, intent upon separating the grey head from the scrawny shoulders, but the wizard had a breath of time before she could reach him. He mustered his thoughts and intoned another spell, pointing the onyx at the female. Black energy enveloped her and suddenly she felt drained. Her feet were like lead and her muscles refused to respond to her demands. In mid stride she came to a stop, frozen in place, unable to move forward or back.

Slink stabbed forward with his dagger, grunting in satisfaction as the point pierced the small dragon's breast. Eight inches of enchanted steel slid into the wyvern's body, skewering its heart. It belched smoky red flame and died.

Karal had managed to get to his feet. His sword was now in hand as he fought his dizziness. He saw Flame freeze within the dark field of energies and knew he should aid her, but his massive body lacked the strength. Rasmadus saw Karal's dilemma. Quickly summonsing his powers, he rattled off a short canticle. Feeling the power building in his body, he focused on Karal, pointing both hands in the direction of the groggy fighter, and unleashed his spell.

Raw energy slammed into Karal, his body soaking it up like a sponge. Strength flowed through his muscles like liquid fire and his lethargy fell away. With a rousting battle-cry he raised his sword and charged the wounded wizard. The magi turned to meet his charge, aiming his onyx staff at the new threat. Karal saw a thin black ray of energy emerge from the stone, travelling towards him, but it sputtered out almost the instant that it touched him. His borrowed energy easily coped with the minute drain and his charge continued unabated.

Both Yaathnaronz and Karal reached the black dwarf simultaneously. Karal landed a blow that should have dispatched the sorcerer into Kaotis's realm. However, the black wizard managed to conjure a shield spell even as steel bit flesh, resulting in a minor cut before the spell thwarted the blow. With Yaathnaronz's attack the black wizard was not so fortunate. Again the demon's arm lengthened. A bunch of twisted digits pierced the faint blue field of energy and fixed themselves around the old dwarf's scrawny neck, talons instantly growing; black, wicked and curved. These horny scythe-like nails dug deeply into flesh as the demon lifted the wizard off the ground, causing the sage's eyes to bulge grotesquely and his tongue to poke out.

"So you want to play," boomed the creature from hell, "then I hope you like my games, little man."

Feebly Greychant waved his hands, trying to get some spell working. It was the only movement afforded the luckless magi. He could not breathe and his chest felt like it would burst at any second, yet his consciousness held.

Yaathnaronz ignored his feeble struggles as he turned to the group. Slink had recovered his dagger and stood with it ready to fight; Rasmadus had slumped against the wall, his features wan, his eyes dark with fatigue. Karal had crossed to where Flame stood and was anxiously examining her, his hands holding her shoulders. Wildhand had regained some movement and was reaching for her forehead, swaying on her feet from the energy drain but otherwise intact.

"My pledge is fulfilled, humans. I will take that which is mine and return to my dimension."

Slink gave a slight nod and put his hand to his forehead in a mock salute.

"Until we meet again, demon."

Yaathnaronz growled softly, his hellish eyes burning with agitated flame. "Do not call upon me for trivialities, my friend. I will demand a prize for attending. Even to aid a kinsman of the great Taratheleon."

"So shall it be. I will not call upon you lightly." Slink agreed.

The demon glowered at the other three humans in turn. Yellow smoke began to form at his feet, rising quickly to envelop his body, his prey and the evil sword, Darksoul, that he still held in his other hand. They saw that the wizard still lived, against all odds, and that in his eyes was the image of real terror. For him, hell was only just beginning.

It was as if a fresh morning breeze blew through the castle. The last of the sulphurous smoke was still dissipating as the keep came alive with crackles and faint echoing screams. An invisible pall lifted. Colours became sharper. The air smelled fresher with a hint of perfume from the wild grasses and flowers that grew in the fields beyond. A shaft of sunlight streamed through a window, dust motes dancing within its luminescence as the crackles and screams faded to silence.

"The enchantment is broken." Rasmadus gasped. He was clutching his chest as if to calm his old heart, his features looking drawn and old. "I think we should rest and recover our strength." And with that comment, the old man slumped to the floor, fast asleep. Flame smiled apologetically at Karal, then curled up beside the priest, her eyes closing as she surrendered herself to sleep.

"Terrific." Slink complained. "And what of us?"

"We explore. Sorcery has ebbed their strength," Karal nodded at the two sleepers, "but I tend to believe the priest. The denizens of this place have all followed their master to hell. It is safe for now."


"No treasure, huh?" Slink beamed. He had thrown back his cowl and the torch set in the wall reflected amber light off his bald pate. Karal turned from his examinations of the room's furnishings, craning his neck to see what Slink held. The thief had found a hidden niche, activated the spring, and had withdrawn from it a small oak casket about two hands long, one hand wide and one hand deep. After picking the small, brass lock he had opened it to reveal a nice collection of cut gemstones worth a small fortune.

Karal smiled at his friend's luck. "I told you there would be treasure."

"Aye," Slink agreed. "Though not the roomful you had me believing in."

Karal gestured at the box. "Payment enough, I'd say."

Slink slammed the lid shut, pushing the box into his bag of spoils collected during their search of the keep. "Payment enough, dear friend." he agreed. "Let us collect our two sleeping friends and return to Eastport."

"Return to Eastport? Maybe." Karal replied, eyes searching around the room.

Refreshed after a long, undisturbed sleep the four adventurers sat around a stout oak table in the room that had been Greychant's quarters. The remains of a sumptuous meal lay strewn on and off the platters and Slink belched, while Rasmadus loosened the cord of his robe to allow for a widening of his waist.

"So what of it?" Slink asked again, this being the fifth time since the previous day the question had been asked. "Do we return to Eastport? I have gemstones to get assessed, sold and squandered on the things that make a thief's life worthwhile."

Rasmadus shook his head. "I shall return to my cottage now my old enemy is dispatched."

Karal looked at Flame, her emerald eyes meeting his blue ones. "Shall I tell him, or will you?"

"You tell him." she replied, smiling. Karal turned to Slink, a wide grin on his face.

"You will have to journey back alone, dear friend. Flame and I are staying on as master and mistress of this keep. Flame wishes to bear a child and I have had enough adventuring for quite a lengthy time."

"Karal? Flame?" He looked at the priest in confusion. Rasmadus, too, was grinning and nodding his head.

"Aye, Slink. I shall marry them this fore-noon before we ride out."

Slink shook his head in wonder. "Well, if that doesn't..." Then he burst into his most radiant smile. "Hellfire. Congratulations, both of you. May you soon make me an uncle."


Copyright 1997 by R.J. STEEN

About the Author in his own words: "I am 44 years old, male and live in Port Lincoln, South Australia where I work as a police sergeant. Writing has been a hobby of mine for about ten years, although I have written stories earlier than that. To date I have not sold to a publisher. I am married with two children, a boy 22 yrs and a girl 19 yrs."

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