The wind swept through the empty streets with a harsh dryness, searching out the spider web cracks in the cobblestone. The parched city now rose slowly into view as the savage wind whipped though the streets. The loose sand billowed into great clouds which swirled in the dim afternoon light. Rubble littered the way, empty crates, and great piles of discarded pots and dishes lay strewn for miles. Occasionally even the stark white bones of a horse still attached to the wagon could be found along the road.
In slow deliberate strides Taren walked cautiously as he approached the city, the giant city gates were torn off their hinges, and lay crumbling into dust wasting away to nothingness. The city reeked of must, rotting debris, and the sickly sweet smell of decay. Dark shadows seemed to swallow the city, giving it a foreboding and perilous look. Still without hesitation he walked on for, despite the obvious danger, the city was his destination. The prophecy had foretold his coming, though it did not mention his going.
Low under his breath Taren sang the foretelling the midwife had sung upon his birth;
“You will walk a wanderer in forest long,
Storms will come to make you strong.
A messenger to walk the path,
Lowly priest who shows his wrath
To those who left and then forgot,
Whose laden hearts have gone to rot.
They stamp their feet, upon the earth
And fill their bellies full with mirth.
Through Grisbaum, and shadowed glade
They walk alone, upon Baloc’s Blade.
The shift of mountains tall and old
Is where they journey in its cold.
What song is sung, of their endless mood?
Or stories told while curses brood?
Set to wander, upon the cull,
They who left Feiore to fall
Into blackness deep
Through death’s cold sleep
Until the hour has come to wane
And the world has felt its final pain.
Awake shall be their eyes at last
To change their fate and troubled past,
Upon the fastness of the reef
Of forests tall and full of grief
Their voices heard, so clear and free
Will bend the sky into the sea!
And from darkness will protrude a light
To mend the world and make it right.
Changelings turned from crimson shades
Into young girls dancing with golden braids
All things forgot, in morning rays
Except to those who gave it days.”
Even from far away the city of Feiore could be seen rising up above Grisbaum, the forest of the dead. For almost a century it had remained empty of life, a cold, forgotten and cursed place, a dark memory from the war of wizards which had covered the land with darkness swallowing the rain and leaving the world in a dry ruin. The last stand of Baloc had occurred here, and his dying curse had wasted the entire country, corrupting everything alive within a hundred leagues of his city. Even now a century after, the earth still suffered, the drought had continued, leaving the world a parched wasteland. Occasionally the heavens did open, but even that gave no cause for celebration as they appeared in storms so massive and destructive that villages and even cities were often laid to ruin by them.
It was mid afternoon when Taren passed through the gates leading into the city, but while the sun had risen long ago endless gray clouds still closeted the sky like the lid of a coffin nailed tight. They were not rain clouds, but clouds of dust, stripping the land bare and soaking up what little water remained. The few trees that lined the street leading into the heart of the city had long ago shed their final leaves to the eternal winter. Now they stood tall reaching up into the air with gnarled arms, empty of life.
The creak of open doors swinging heavily on their hinges was the only sound to join with the mad whistling of the ever-present wind as it whipped through the barren city. The windows on the houses held their broken panes in twisted fragments holding loosely to their wooden frames. Yet other than those noises caused by the screech of the wind, not a sound could be heard, either a baby’s cry, or the mumble of the merchants who had at one time sold their exotic wares on the street corners. Even the birds had long ago abandoned the hedgerows for some faraway harbor, only desolation remained, and the dead.
On this day, however, for the first time in a hundred years, a slow crunch could now be heard from someone treading lightly over the broken cobble street. The breaking of the silence almost made the whole city seem as if it would come alive at any second, yet instead it only made the whole citadel press down more ominously upon the lonely traveler. After winding through the narrow city streets he arrived at the palace gatehouse. The palace was in ruins, though at one time Taren knew that it had been a colossal structure, both in strength and beauty. Even now, glints of faded gold, and weather beaten marble could be seen dully gleaming in the low light of the evening. After a moment’s hesitation he slipped through the now twisted iron bars and crept cautiously through its now barren grounds.
Swiftly the cloaked traveler passed through the courtyard, and coming to the palace doors, entered into the darkness of its chambers. Shortly after entering a small light sparked, and then flared from an iron lantern, illuminating the dark halls, and casting looming shadows on the floor. Without stopping he quickly moved from the antechamber, and into the inner hall. Stairways reached up along the walls slowly ascending into the upper rooms. Tall pillars shaped in the aspect of mighty trees, stood tall like sentinels guarding the palace. They stretched down the expansive chamber ever opposing each other in two great formations as they lead to the distant throne.
Small shafts of gray light now broke through the darkness, as He moved swiftly, coming closer to the throne. The beams fell from lofty windows where once brilliant panes of colored glass had broken. Still visible on the walls were the tortured figures of men, women, and children. Some gallant and brave facing death, others blackened and naked withering beneath the shadow of the king. A high whistling screech could be heard, as the wind whipped through the broken glass on the windows, sounding like an alarm. Grimacing he walked on, the brutal visages of the past held no sway over him, they could not be changed.
He sniffed the air, the smell of rot and death still lingered, as a reminder. Even now he knew that danger could still be found here, old things forgotten could still bring destruction and death to the unwise. Without breaking his stride, he approached the throne room door, its massive oaken boards painted in fading colors, and golden runes. Great iron hinges rusted on its corners, and a great handle in the shape of a snake, its massive head reaching out to be grasped and tail carefully curled between its coils.
Carefully he felt the handle, neither pressing nor pulling upon it, the dark ruby eyes of the creature seemed to follow his movements, finally as if confirming something he had long suspected he pulled his hand away, grasped the tail of the snake, and pushed upon the groaning door. Immediately razor-sharp needles drove through the snakes back and head, poison glistening from their tips in tiny droplets where a moment ago his hand had grazed. Again he pushed, this time with all of his strength, forcing the hinges to grind free of their position. Slowly as if resisting his entrance the doors groaned open, revealing a large forbidding room of worked stone and black iron. At its end was a great throne, red as blood, and covered in thick rotting cloth.
A tall figure sat upon the throne, an iron visage of strength and power perfectly preserved in appearance, even in the low light of the lantern, his cruel eyes could be seen to glint with savagery and blood lust. In his hand he held an orb, like a white diamond, hard and cold. Yet at its center a dull light could be seen to pulse, as if struggling against the hold of its master. A small flame which flickered against the darkness yet could make no advance against the power which held it.
Ascending to the throne the old man took a cloth out of his cloak, and grasped the orb with it, but it would not come free from the iron hand. Muttering to himself, he began to chant. Almost immediately a low warming light could be seen spreading from his left hand to the orb. A sudden light blazed within it, breaking up the darkness which lay heavily upon the throne. At that same moment low roar could be heard, it spread quickly, gathering strength until the whole city could be heard groaning. Then it stopped.
Quickly, and fearfully he stooped down with his right hand and pulled again at the orb, with a snap it came free from its master’s hand, and in that instant the wizard upon the throne crumbled, hollowed out, and disintegrated. For a moment Taren froze, paralyzed by fear. The wizard was gone, yet he could now feel the malice and rage growing furiously in the room. He turned and fled quickly out of the throne room and into the hall. Everything was darker now, the evening was almost ended, and a piercing chill was in the air. It took his entire strength not to look behind him, but he knew he was being followed now. The power of evil was stronger than before, and even as he ran, it felt closer, as if something was clutching after him. In desperation he threw himself into the courtyard, clambering, and falling on the marble steps. He clutched his sword and turned, it rang out as it swung in front of him. In horror he caught a glimpse of a man, dark and cowled looming from the doorway, seething with venom, and then was gone.
Without another backward glance Taren hobbled past the gatehouse, blood dripped through his trousers, where he had fallen and gashed his leg. Slowly he limped back down the street, shivering as he shouldered his small pack. His eyes desperately watching the houses with a weary determination as dust swirled around his legs. Shadows moved in the windows, dark silhouettes fading in and out of sight. What little light remained was already fading beyond the horizon; leaving a quickly falling darkness in its wake. Soon the city, would awaken, and with it, all manner of evil.
He quickened his pace, the city gates loomed ahead; its sheer stone-mason walls rising a hundred feet into the dim sky. He knew before he had entered the city what a risk it would be, yet he knew with almost certainty that he would make the gate before dusk. Before the coming night turned loose the ghoulish creatures, ever haunting the dead city.
The nearer he approached the gates however, the darker the sky seemed to grow. The wind slowed in anticipation of the coming night as the horizon shed the only color the sky could bleed, a crusty red, like a bloodshot moon. The clacking of shutters slowed, until only a soft moaning filled the air. He quickened his pace, his cracking voice spilling charms of safety around him, until a dull white glow seemed to spill out of the seams in his gray woolen cloak. Behind him he could hear rustling and soft howling as the ghouls peered earnestly at the receding light, snapping their teeth in a rattling chant of hatred.
Far behind in the distance, he could now hear the creaking of hinges, as the creatures began to inch out into the twilight, the sun having fallen well below the mountain range off to the west. Sooner than he had anticipated he knew they would be upon him, yet maybe he could still make the gates before they fully awoke from their sleep. Perhaps slipping into the dark forest, where the safety of its cold forbidding trunks created a labyrinth of trails which would lead him away from the oncoming danger.
His spells now complete he gathered up his cloak behind him and began to run, his thick legs quivering and stretching as he darted for the gates. The ghouls let out a screeching cry as they saw their prey bolt, and pushed like a flood onto the cobblestone street. Their tortured feet splayed wide apart as they scrambled, some on all fours towards the feeling man.
Reaching the gateway he sped into the field between the city and the forest. Behind him the ghouls had also reached the gateway, their cries growing louder with frustration as they saw him nearing the forest. Their speed quickened, as they clambered forward, closing the small distance between them and their prey.
He knew that he would be overtaken; he could smell the reeking stench of rotting flesh just moments behind him. He ground his teeth in frustration, tensing every fiber in his body to its breaking point as he tore through the low-lying grass. A mere hundred feet remained between him and the forest, yet with every second the ghouls approached still closer, their savage eyes full of blood lust.
His head pounded and vision blurred as he pushed himself forward, his wounded leg screamed with pain. Suddenly flickers of light whistled past him. He gasped as a dull gleam appeared, like a lantern ahead, than a second, third and fourth one, until the entire forest edge seemed to come alight. Behind him he could hear the sound of the pursuing ghouls turning into confusion and fear as a swarm of fiery arrows struck them mere paces behind their prey. For a second they merely slowed their gait, and than just as suddenly as they had begun their chase they stopped. A harsh and deep roar could be heard now, coming from deep within the city, reverberating and echoing like an earthquake in the endless caverns of the world. At once they turned fleeing back toward the citadel, tossing their heads ever slightly behind them to screech their hatred upon their attackers, and the loss of their prey. To tell them, that they would return.
Reaching the forest edge Taren stumbled, his legs trembling with exhaustion, sticky with blood and sweat. He no longer retained the energy to hold his charms, or even to stand. He fell roughly into the dust, watching as tiny beads of light, from his charms, trickled off him onto the ground where they expired in the dead grass. Humans, he could smell them, their rank stench almost as noxious to him as that of the ghouls. As pitiful as it would have been to have fallen to the dead he almost found himself wishing to exchange fates rather than to have been saved by these men. There were only thieves and traitors within this country, worthless men. Yet he knew without saying so that he was now their captive, an unfavorable shift of fortune, a poor hand of fate.
A ring of notched arrows quickly surrounded him, their iron tips gleamed dull in the lantern light. Bows creaked as they bent in anticipation of releasing their fury. Shadowy faces hooded, and bodies cloaked rose all around him, from the eve of the trees, and the grasslands beside, a whole company of men seemed to emerge from the twilight. He strove to maintain consciousness, but the light was fading, and all that was left was night.