The Dead Gate by J.J. Eliyas

EXTRACT FOR
The Dead Gate

(J.J. Eliyas)


Prologue

"And your findings?" asked the Preceptor from the pulpit. He was a severe man in robes of creme and gold thread.
The acolyte looked to his master and waited deferentially for him to respond. It would not be proper to speak out of turn to the Preceptor. There were protocols here that even someone with his background could not transgress.
The priest cleared his throat and nervous sweat welled on his balding pate. The Assembly of Inquiry was quiet, several hundred waiting to hear what evidence the two had found.
"It appears that we were mistaken, young Adon and I," the priest said tentatively. Adon shot him a startled glance but kept his mouth shut.
"The acolytes in question, all three, appear to have been decapitated as a result of the cave in. It was an accident."
"Untrue!" Adon blurted out, his green eyes darting to the Preceptor. A murmur began to spread through the assembly.
"What is this?" the Preceptor asked in a gravel-filled voice. He lowered his gaze to Adon.
"It is not your place, Adon," his master warned, but it was half-hearted.
"That is not what we found. A falling pillar does not decapitate three acolytes. It does not line up their bodies, face down and naked, or place their heads, sans eyes, upon the back of a different body. Disasters do not treat corpses this way!"
The Preceptor frowned grimly as the Assembly erupted in dismay, several acolytes filtered in from the alcove to listen in and the Preceptor of the Temple of Tarn had to strike the podium with his mace to get order.
"Elaborate," he said sonorously.
"These three were from Ord. They came after it fell, fleeing what happened there. We never thought they were suspect but when we questioned their fellows, little was known about them. They kept to themselves.
"How does that affect anything?" came one shout from the assembly. "After all they went through in Ord."
"In and of itself it does not," Adon retorted. "In Ord, Myella and Duran corrupted the Temple, and brought forth the minions of Oran, leaving a dead city, much like Narn-toc. Here we found the beginning of similar necromancing. The remnants of what they were doing were left in the catacombs.
"There is blood not theirs, and a strange black fluid. It lies near dark runes burned in the wall. And there is a sense of deep darkness there, I cannot fathom. It is foul and corrupt."
"My young Acolyte has a vivid imagination," the priest stammered. He himself had not felt the darkness his acolyte talked of, and it galled him as much as it frightened him that he was not as adept in the Arts as his pupil. "Workers who found the bodies may have placed them such. And the runes could easily predate this Temple."
A murmur of assent rumbled through the Assembly.
"Are you all blind?" asked Adon in frustration. "Before you is evidence of Oran's involvement. They were trying to open a Gate, or did. I pray to Tarn they did not succeed.
"We all have seen the signs of Power in the Dead City, faintly perceived through the aether. The Cult of Oran did gain acceptance in the courts of the Conclaveum, and I suspect among these three from Ord, as well."
A silence fell over the hall, deathly still. The only sound was that of rain pattering on the crystal dome above them. Adon plowed on.
"We turn a blind eye because we believe we are infallible but we can no longer deny the truth. The runes were of a form used by Iss. The three were meant as sacrifice and the placement of the heads to thwart Salvation."
"Supposition!" his mentor countered, frowning. It was interjected, clearly, to break his junior's stride. Adon looked at him in wonder, not comprehending why the man would want so desperately to hide what was clearly the truth.
"Are you all fools?!" Adon shouted and leveled a pointed finger at the assembly. The group as a whole suddenly erupted in angry argument and protest. Gesticulating and red-faced, the crowd was obviously incensed at his words. Adon shook his head in bafflement, finally turning toward the dais as the low voice of the Preceptor commanded his attention.
"Silence," he said softly. Then louder: "SILENCE!"
The cacophony of the assembly died down to hurried whispers, echoing through the vaulted space.
"I have heard enough," the Preceptor stood and smoothed his robe. He clasped his hands behind his back and looked toward the crystal dome of the temple. Rain now drummed upon the interlaced panes and covered the restless voices with its soft susurration. A peal of thunder broke his momentary pause and he surveyed the assembly, a grim smile upon his face.
"You see the danger don't you?" He started, and Adon felt a momentary relief that was soon dispelled. "I agree that Oran is involved here... insofar as he can create flights of fancy in a young mind."
Adon was about to retort but the Preceptor held up a silencing hand. "No, Adon. You have gone too far. Your mentor should have reined you in long ago. You forget your place: it is no longer of the Clave, but of the Temple. You know very little of these things, and this knowledge only comes with time. Perhaps in ten or so years you will see the folly of your ways --"
"Folly! How can you speak of folly, when you yourself see not the peril? The Temple itself is in jeopardy and you, in your blindness, do not see these signs." Adon looked imploringly into the crowd of the assembled, but they all stared blankly, some in shock, some waiting for further confrontation like spectators at theatre.
The Preceptor shook his head sadly. He looked to the priests and acolytes and then skyward to the dome as lightening flashed above. "I pray to Tarn that wisdom will fall upon you. I --"
A sudden clap of thunder exploded so loudly above them that it drowned out the rest of his words. As the booming echoes faded, there was a resounding pop and a sharp crack. All eyes turned upward to the crystalline dome. The air was thick with ozone and suddenly a dark fissure appeared in the dome, spreading quickly as rain pelted down on it, and then through it. Instinctively, Adon backed away from the center of the room, toward the entrance in the rear of the chamber. A few acolytes did the same, but the majority of the assemblage stared upward, as if frozen in mindless anticipation. It was though they were in a state of rapture; even Adon's eyes seemed riveted above. The Preceptor's quizzical gaze locked on the dome.
Adon shook his head to clear it. It was if some spell had tried to take hold of him, clouding his mind. He quickly motioned the acolytes out through the doors. He looked over his shoulder into the forum just as a tinkling cacophony of sound shattered the air behind him.
Sword-sized shards of broken crystal rained down upon the upward-gazing assembly. Adon could only stare in shock as the shrapnel speared down, impaling the majority of those standing motionless below. The room filled with a fine red mist of arterial blood, returning the hapless survivors to their senses. They cried out in despair, but soon their voices were overwhelmed by a hellish screeching that rose in pitch until Adon doubled over in agony. He felt a tugging on his arm as one of the acolytes sought to pull him further out of the forum, and it took all the strength he could muster to struggle the few feet over the threshold and not vomit. He began to close the doors behind him when he saw the creature descend on leathery wing in a coalescence of malignancy; it drifted down to where the Preceptor stood frozen amid the slowly-settling bloody mist.
Adon, watched in horror as the creature of Oran descended into the Sanctuary in front of the preceptor. Hellish Frost of Oran emanated outward, the mist of blood freezing and falling like garnet snow, then was buried by a white rime that enveloped everything. As he closed the door and ran to escape with the other acolytes, the slaughter began in earnest.
They ran, their breath misting in the newly entered cold. Adon led them down the winding stair and into a side chamber; he knew of only one possible way to escape. At the end of the hallway there was a small door that led to the back of the winery; behind the large casks of wine.
The creature's bestial scream howled through the catacombs of the Sequestery. Darkness engulfed them, as they felt their way past storage casks. That noise of scraping and oblivion, the sound of the water crackling into ice followed them. Adon shuddered; he knew there was an even chance that he led the four novices to their deaths as much as away.
He scraped his head on the low ceiling, sweat chilled by the cool dryness of the chamber. There was a grate here, rusted and loose from the chamber wall. He grabbed the novices one by one and shoved them toward it. Steel scraped on stone as they wrenched the grate from its rotting bolts, and there was a dull ring of metal as it fell to the floor. The sound of slithering and scales and gnashing of bones grew louder in the distance, but at last, the fourth novice was through, and Adon soon followed.
Adon knew the peril they were in, not just for their lives, but for their immortal souls. Now he prayed silently to Tarn as he pulled himself through the duct and along the mold-encrusted stones. He heard the shallow breathing ahead of him and knew that his charges were very close to panic. Still, in low tones, he urged them on. Somewhere behind, the sound of pursuit by what could only be a Deathwing had ceased. He shook his head and felt the sweat fall again from his skin. He pushed hard to keep the dark thoughts at bay, especially images of the winged death in the Temple and the Preceptor eviscerated, or worse, in the Sanctuary.
He had warned them, he had warned them. He reflected, sadly, that even in the end the Preceptor had been unbelieving, even as the Deathwing had sundered the man's flesh. Not so holy as to stop a Daemon came the bitter thought, and your much-vaunted "years" gave you no wisdom to foresee this. Adon's luck, or was it Tarn's gift, had been with him long enough to allow him escape from the massacre. And here they were, crawling through the tunnels beneath the winery.
Ahead, the novices had stopped and he saw a faint glow of red. What was this? He now could make out the faces of the four. Marella, she was the first. Then Jiyn, gods but he looked scared in the crimson light. Tabit and Frey stood silently shivering, they were the youngest, just boys really.
Adon squeezed ahead of them and looked out through the grate, feeling Marella's fear as he pressed against her. She touched his hand a moment, seeking comfort, and he turned his green eyes to her, somehow trying to convey a bit of strength. She smiled weakly and he was glad for that. Even through the dirt and sweat, she was a beautiful woman, and her attempt at bravery gave him a moment's courage. He looked through the grate and up at the Temple. They were at the tunnel's end, just outside the courtyard of the Sequestery.
He shoved hard at the grate and it came loose, even more easily than the other one had. Carefully he lowered it to the earth, and as he was about to squeeze through to the ground he heard Tabit and Frey scream. He looked down sharply, urging the aether to enhance his vision. He saw a snakelike tentacle wrap around the boys; then just as quickly they were pulled from his Vision.
"Daemon!" he hissed. Jiyn's scream fell short, strangled in mid-cry. Adon flung himself out of the tunnel, pulling Marella through as something, it, grabbed her ankles. He pulled her arms, anchoring his feet against the wall. Marella gasped in pain, her face turning red with the effort. Somewhere in the distance, Adon heard the rustling wings.
His muscles strained and he gasped; the air was breathtakingly cold and heavy with the fetid stench of Oran. He saw the skin on Marella's calves turn white. He looked into her eyes and saw a look of profound loss...and then she let go.
"No!" he shouted as she was pulled from his sight, and a low rumble of laughter more evil than he could imagine threatened to edge out all sanity. For a moment, he too was frozen, then he ran, blindly for a time, somehow managing to free himself at last from the Sequestery grounds and from what had become of Tarn Hold.
He ran, and a dark mocking cry followed him.

Chapter 1

Tom Smiling Wolf scrambled over some disintegrating rock, not wanting to get too close to the edge of the path. It was a long nasty fall to his left.
The horses were far behind in a hidden arroyo, and he led his small group on a narrow path above the main road - if you could call it that - that led to the citadel of Helm and the Great Wall. He paused on the rock outcropping looking over his shoulder; he could not help but have that feeling of being watched. Creeping over a rock shelf, he looked north and there it was: the Great Wall. It loomed in the distance, rising nearly to the clouds. Mist now cloaked the base of the edifice along the river hiding most of Helm.
He pushed his hair out of his eyes, his lithe corded frame pressed low to minimize his silhouette. Light drenched everything red, like some monochromatic painting of the old West, yet somehow the Wall was untouched by the bloody tint. It stood as a black gash stretching from horizon to horizon, unsettling him to his very core.
Even though evening was well upon them, they did not dare light a fire or torch. Not here, not anywhere, at least until they were well into the Plains of Straw, about two days on foot. Even then, they risked exposure.
He had come to the Wall with three of Torec's men, crossing the Plains from Paravel, all within two weeks. Getting close to the Wall was not the problem; they had made their way easily through the narrow gorge that was the only pass to the south from the city of Helm. The large column of soldiers was marching south; they had paralleled the road to avoid detection. Where were they going? He was not privy to that information. Why were they going? Frowning cynically, he knew that Myella was behind this sudden movement of the troops. Soldiers in the livery of the Temple of Oran led the column of the Black Guard of the Wall. After watching the column of troops pass by, he and Torec's men had retreated away from the gorge and now camped on the approach to the long curve of the bridge that spanned the river. Two stout towers stood on the south side of the wide span; there would be no sneaking over the causeway without coming under the scrutiny of the military contingent that protected it. There would be no fording the river either; here it rushed a deep, turbulent green.
He eyed The Great Wall, still a good mile away despite its seeming nearness, trying to make sense of the thing, for it surely was not man-made. Tom had never seen anything like it; its base cut with striations of granite, but above the flood line, the wall went from dark gray to black. Within its wet surface, were embedded huge, fossilized bones, grotesquely twisted together as if ready to spring out in some horrific attack. In the dreary early evening light, the surface had taken on a fine, wet sheen, as if the fluid seeped from its core. To the west and almost out of vision, the gloom the Wall finally merged with the tall cliffs that eventually became the Doran Range.
Before them was the only point of entrance to the Conclaveum west of Qwen. Here the wall split open, nearly a thousand feet wide: the Breach. Black in depth, and guarded by an island set in the middle of the river. Tom raised the spyglass Donon had handed him. The breach revealed the course of a river; flowing through it from the north. Intricate scaffolding spider webbed all the way to the summit of the Wall and huge braziers dotted the summit. Tom wondered if the Conclaveum had built a road up there, if that were even possible.
Below, and guarding the river, Kipris, Donon had called it, was the citadel of Helm, which sat on a small island. One tall tower marked the center, otherwise it was a low and imposing village, circled by walls that reached out into the water and enclosed the docks. If one wanted to gain entrance to the Conclaveum, one must first pass through Helm.
He sighed and lowered himself below the ridgeline. His four compatriots had already set about placing canvas windbreak over the dark niches to protect them, not from prying eyes, but rather the howling gale that usually sprung up and careened through the rock deformations. He gladly accepted water from Tyrhel, and slid into the narrow cave where Gayden was already putting down bedrolls. One of the things Tom had observed was that Torec's men did not talk much, even among themselves; they communicated mostly with their eyes and gestures. He wondered if this were a regional affectation, or a habit born of a mercenary's need for silence.
He leaned his bow quiver near his bedroll and sat down cross-legged, rubbing his one good eye. He squinted. His vision had been bothering him of late, for the past three months to be exact, since just before the Battle of the Seat. It could be anything, and it concerned him a little. Having been born three months prematurely, he had lost his right eye to infection. His left eye was okay, but not as sharp as he would like. Yet now, his vision would blur occasionally, finally taking on new clarity, then it would return as if nothing at all had happened.
It was not a good time for his vision to worsen, for sure. He shook his head and leaned it back against the cool stone. The men were readying to bed down, the quiet sounds of their toilet, a shallow cough, a whisper of conversation drifted over him. It was easy to forget he and his friends were in an alien world. Not so long ago, they came into this world through some dark sorcery, for some purpose they could not glean. Only a few short months, or an eternity, take your pick, he thought ruefully. It was definitely a shock, brought to a world where technology was non-existent and men commanded magic or wielded swords; all in a landscape riddled by oddities. Not too long ago, he was just another medical student hanging out with his friends at a Medieval Society Convention. Next thing you know he and his five friends were plucked out of the air and planted in a strange world where faction of the Conclaveum was trying to kill all who opposed them.
Not so different from their world that the finality of death was always present, he thought. Moreover, he and his friend had certainly dealt out their share. From almost the first moment they were brought here, Myella, daughter of the ruler of the Conclaveum, who sought to seize control for herself, had been hunted them tirelessly. She had stopped a nothing to gain control over them; from ensorceling Joe, to killing Chill, and capturing John. In the end they had prevailed, but barely, thanks to some well found allies; overcoming Myella in Paravel only now to find themselves awaiting an attack from her allies within the Conclaveum who wished to propel her to the Seat of Power. Tom feared that when it came, it would rush over them like a wave.
He felt a tugging at his arm and looked down to find Kiera, his ferret, pulling at his sleeve; she was hungry. He petted her absently and opened up a pocket to reveal a mix of dried meat and nuts. She looked at it, curiously for a moment, and began to forage for the morsels she liked best. Good ole Kiera, he thought. She never forgets the basics.
He heard Gayden laugh, and looked up. Donon was backing out of the cave, tugging his britches. Gayden thumbed after him.
"Apparently the beans he had disagreed with him!" Tyhrel joined in the laughter and Tom smirked. Tom Smiling Wolf, a son of the Sioux Nation went about rolling out his bedding. He put his long bowie knife next to the head of it and sat down to brush his teeth with linen gauze and a stick. There was a loud groan from just outside the windbreak and the sound of a wet splat. Donon's two friends laughed loudly.
"Perhaps he picked up something else?" Tom asked but was not too concerned as he had been the victim of similar circumstances for two days of the ride north.
Tyhrel shrugged and looked toward the break, now illuminated by the setting sun. All cast in russet. A dark pool of fluid began to seep under the canvas at the entrance.
"Oh, for Tarn's sake, Donon," scowled Gayden. "If you're gonna run, do it away from the cave." Tom looked up just as Kiera jumped into the fold of his over shirt, scared from the outburst.
Gayden twisted away, expecting the foul odor of excrement and instead caught the metallic tang of blood. "What?"
Tom dived for his knife. His quick reflexes sparing him from a grisly death as the windbreak disintegrated in a fusillade of steel spikes, several catching Gayden full on and nearly tearing his head off. Tom missing grabbing the hilt of his knife as he rolled right, behind an outcropping of stone, watching helplessly as Tyhrel made for the back of the cave, also catching spikes to his back, one impaling him to the cave wall.
Smiling Wolf hunched low against the stone, pushing deeper into the cave. He looked to Tyhrel, and in the dim light of the cavern could see he was still alive, if only barely. The man began to moan in pain and it slowly began to build. Tom noticed the projectile that had him pinned to the wall was vibrating and cooling from red-hot to black. Another gaping would sealed itself, but it looked as if the spike was writhing inside the man's body. His shrieking continued in waves now, reaching a crescendo until finally his eyes glazed over -- finally dead but only after interminable agony.
Tom did a swift self-inventory and noticed his arrows lay halfway to Tyrel's body and his bow was on the opposite wall. Okay, is the attack over? Surely they will be doing a head count, he thought.
Reaching out, he tried to touch the quiver with his fingers. Just as he got a grasp onto it shrapnel followed another series of low thuds as spikes imbedded in the back wall, tearing to pieces the remains of Tyhrel. One painfully grazed his ribs as he had leaned over, tearing his shirt and leaving a scrape. He ignored the pain and shrank further back into the cave, flinching as a cool breeze touched his neck. A quick glance upward showed him a narrow chimney and the first glimmering of stars outside. But was it too narrow?
He began to shrug out of anything that might catch on the stone and trap him. His satchel and Bowie he tied to a thin piece of rope. Next came Kiera; not wanting to crush her, he put her in the satchel and tied it closed. He would pull everything up after he got out, if he got out.
It was a hard squeeze for the first three feet, and he thought at the last point he would not get past. Leading with his right arm and scraping the left side of his face and body along the rough stone, with one final heave, he twisted through the narrow chimney and into a wider opening less than six feet from his starting point. Now the opening above was wide enough for two men.
He quickly pulled up the satchel and the knife and strapped them on. There were enough little ledges and grooves here that he could easily pull himself up the rest of the way. In a moment, he was ready to look.
Carefully he pulled himself out, watching for any attack, but none came. There were large outcroppings of malformed granite all around him. He lay flat and pulled himself in the opposite direction from the attack. He had to get as far away as possible. Behind him, he heard the sound of movement. Whoever it was, they were not concerned about stealth. He recognized the clinking of armor and heavy steps.
Finally he came to a narrow passage with high walls of rock on either side. He slid in and waited.
Tyhrel, Donon, Gayden, all dead in a manner of seconds, and only luck had spared him.
They were slaughtered, Tom thought angrily as he looked around the dark gorge. Night had fully fallen now. He had to get back to the horses, head southward to the Plains. This place was a maze of pitfalls, sinkholes and switchbacks; according to Tyrhel: warped by the sorcery used to raise the Great Wall.
Who were their assailants? he wondered. He had only heard them. It would probably serve him well if he spied them out; they would not expect that, maybe they did not even know they had missed one of their intended victims.
He slid past the rock formation and into another gulch, it was narrow but he could squeeze through. He splashed into the cold runoff and stopped abruptly, listening. Nothing.
He would follow the flow of the runoff for a time, even though he knew it would lead toward the river at the base of the Wall rather than in the direction he needed to go. The rock formations that thrust their way, finger-like to the sky, were jagged and treacherous.
Kiera crawled up around his neck, licking salt from his face. She smelled the blood on him and knew it was his, though luckily, a small one that would not hinder him for the time being. He looked down, barely able to see in the pale moonlight. The spike had narrowly missed him, scraping along his ribs and giving him what looked like a third degree burn; in the time he had left the cave it had become a whitened blister surrounded by black and red char.
Nice, he thought. Moreover, very unnatural.
He scratched the ferret absently behind the ear, and then set her back into the pouch she had managed worm from. The sooner he got out of this rocky maze the better.
A short time later, he stopped and sank to his haunches, needing a moment of rest. It was funny how suddenly the stars above could give him enough light to see by, even in what seemed the blackest of gorges. Wondering if he would get out of this one alive, he leaned back against the cool rock and winced at the sound of his knife's hilt grating on stone.
Shit! He swore to himself. Such stupid mistake could get him killed.
Not a sound, except the wind whistling through the rocks. Nothing.
Then, a shadow, further down the gorge. He rolled to the side, hearing the low thump, and the ringing, as he saw a spike bury itself in the sandstone. Looking toward its source, he saw a figure outlined by a backdrop of constellations. The man's helmet obscured his face, but the weapon was memorable: a long, black staff, about two inches in diameter -- almost like a gun barrel -- that made a thumping sound as it spewed a spike. His assailant moved off to the right, trailing a hellish red glow. Where did he go? Knife in hand, Tom looked for the form in the gloom.
Again, Tom was certain he could make out the dark figure near the end of the gorge, but then it was gone. Wait...other sounds, of scrabbling rocks and falling pebbles. Someone suddenly stood before him, not fifty feet away.
"So Smiling Wolf," he heard a raspy voice. It reminded him of something or someone he could not place. "My friend has come to Helm. You must not be happy with what you achieved in Paravel." His stalker walked slowly up the gorge towards him, using the staff as a walking stick. Tom could make out the symbol on the man's tabard; it was a hand, palm outward: The Hand of Keth.
"Well I'm in some deep shit now," he whispered. He had heard of the Hands of Keth. Then louder: "I'm surprised you haven't killed me yet."
"We don't want to kill you, Tom."
Smiling Wolf stepped back. He knew where he had heard the voice before and the familiar shape of the man's shadow, but that was impossible. He shook his head. He was no match for that staff. He sheathed his knife and relaxed, seemingly awaiting his fate.
"Is it that easy, Tom? Will you surrender? Guyle knew you were here so he sent us to find you. The others were of no consequence. But, you are another matter." The stout man was almost upon the Sioux. He lowered the staff, the point leveled at Tom's chest.
Tom dodged to the side at the last second, the thump almost knocking his breath away. He seemed to scale the side of the rock wall. The Hand of Keth turned and Smiling Wolf cast his last three shuriken at him. Two bounced harmlessly off the mail, the third lodged in the helmet, just above the visor.
Great! he thought somewhat cynically, as he took off down the narrow gorge. He looked back just as he was about to round the bend. The Hand of Keth, on one knee, hastily pulled the helm from his head. Even in the starlight, Tom could see the stout features, the black hair, and the scar at the temple.
He sprinted as fast as he could, hardly hampered by the close quarters of the passage. He stopped abruptly, the sound of others around him. Looking ahead, all he could perceive was blackness; the rock formations merged and formed a tunnel.
Something slammed into his wounded side and a groan escaped his lips. He rolled forward to avoid the slash of the bladed weapon. Blood flowed freely down his side. Instinctively his own knife snapped out and he slashed back, over his shoulder. Turning he saw that he had pierced through the visor of one of the Hands. It lay there...dead?
"Tom...there is no escape. Not even death is an escape." He shuddered at the sound of the voice behind him. He dove into the shadow of the tunnel and, too late, realized that his pouch, and Kiera, lay on the ground at the Hand's feet; the strap severed by the creature's sword. He stopped and turned to go back, but his feet slipped on the loose gravel and he fell to his knees.
The Hand of Keth stepped over his dead comrade and walked to the pouch that lay at the foot of the tunnel. It squirmed on the rocky floor. He stooped and picked up the satchel. Pulling his gauntlet off, he grabbed the ferret from the bag, holding her aloft. The ferret looked at him and saw the blankness staring back. She bit furiously at the man's hand, between thumb and forefinger, and drew a dark bead of blood. The man grimaced, then a sneer twisted his lips and he squeezed.
The high-pitched squeal of the animal split the night, shattering the night. Finally, there came a sharp snap and the animal went limp. The Hand of Keth cast the limp carcass to the side.
"NO! You sonofabitch!" Tom hefted his knife ready to charge forward when the ground fell out below him.
...Slip, drop, rush and he was falling into a sinkhole, his stomach in his throat. The sinkhole had led to a tunnel that had flowed into another crevasse. It was a chute more like, then a cascade of water and rock. He slid along the steep grade in about three inches of water. For one mad moment, it crossed his mind that this was like a water-park ride, but then a jutting rock nearly cost him his good eye and he returned to the reality of the danger.
Bruised and battered, he tumbled along the winding way of the chute.
Just as he was starting to wonder if this roller-coaster ride would go on forever, Tom Smiling Wolf felt that stomach churning feeling of weightlessness, then a rush of air in his ears that almost deafened him. The Sioux shot out of the water slide and into open space, fifty feet above the river that ran along the base of the Great Wall.
What next? came the fleeting thought as he plunged into the icy water. Grazing his backside on the rocks, he fought for the surface. The current was strong and the turbulence fierce, but his head finally broke the surface. As he gulped for air, he began frantic strokes toward the south side of the river. At first his efforts were to no avail, he was dragged toward a dark crack in the base of the Wall. A spillway? He fought even harder and his strokes brought him nearer the south bank. He went with the current now, just keeping afloat. It seemed forever in the icy water, but he knew it was only moments as he passed beneath the bridge to Helm and floated by the docks. Once the current took him past Helm, he struck out for the south bank with renewed vigor. As he approached the shallows, he no longer felt the tug of the water's course. Bobbing in the choppy river, he tried to wipe the water from his good eye, but it blurred, and then doubled... how.
Of all times for this to happen! He reached out for a rock outcropping but missed. He tried again. He had no depth perception with one eye, but...his vision blurred, doubled, and then resolved into a clarity that was almost painful. The two images fused and became one.
He grabbed the rock and pulled himself to shore. Leaning against a boulder, he gazed at the black water that rushed past him into the night. Everything gone but his knife, he stared at his hands, torn and bruised by the sharp rocks. His wounded side was now only a dull, painful throb, numbed by the cold water.
He smiled grimly. Now he knew why his vision had been bothering him.
The Hand peered over the rim of the sinkhole that had engulfed the Outlander. No expression came from him; rather he just hefted the staff, his kris-voulge, and began his trek back to the Great Wall and Guyle, his master.

The Dead Gate by J.J. Eliyas

EXTRACT FOR
The Dead Gate

(J.J. Eliyas)


Prologue

"And your findings?" asked the Preceptor from the pulpit. He was a severe man in robes of creme and gold thread.
The acolyte looked to his master and waited deferentially for him to respond. It would not be proper to speak out of turn to the Preceptor. There were protocols here that even someone with his background could not transgress.
The priest cleared his throat and nervous sweat welled on his balding pate. The Assembly of Inquiry was quiet, several hundred waiting to hear what evidence the two had found.
"It appears that we were mistaken, young Adon and I," the priest said tentatively. Adon shot him a startled glance but kept his mouth shut.
"The acolytes in question, all three, appear to have been decapitated as a result of the cave in. It was an accident."
"Untrue!" Adon blurted out, his green eyes darting to the Preceptor. A murmur began to spread through the assembly.
"What is this?" the Preceptor asked in a gravel-filled voice. He lowered his gaze to Adon.
"It is not your place, Adon," his master warned, but it was half-hearted.
"That is not what we found. A falling pillar does not decapitate three acolytes. It does not line up their bodies, face down and naked, or place their heads, sans eyes, upon the back of a different body. Disasters do not treat corpses this way!"
The Preceptor frowned grimly as the Assembly erupted in dismay, several acolytes filtered in from the alcove to listen in and the Preceptor of the Temple of Tarn had to strike the podium with his mace to get order.
"Elaborate," he said sonorously.
"These three were from Ord. They came after it fell, fleeing what happened there. We never thought they were suspect but when we questioned their fellows, little was known about them. They kept to themselves.
"How does that affect anything?" came one shout from the assembly. "After all they went through in Ord."
"In and of itself it does not," Adon retorted. "In Ord, Myella and Duran corrupted the Temple, and brought forth the minions of Oran, leaving a dead city, much like Narn-toc. Here we found the beginning of similar necromancing. The remnants of what they were doing were left in the catacombs.
"There is blood not theirs, and a strange black fluid. It lies near dark runes burned in the wall. And there is a sense of deep darkness there, I cannot fathom. It is foul and corrupt."
"My young Acolyte has a vivid imagination," the priest stammered. He himself had not felt the darkness his acolyte talked of, and it galled him as much as it frightened him that he was not as adept in the Arts as his pupil. "Workers who found the bodies may have placed them such. And the runes could easily predate this Temple."
A murmur of assent rumbled through the Assembly.
"Are you all blind?" asked Adon in frustration. "Before you is evidence of Oran's involvement. They were trying to open a Gate, or did. I pray to Tarn they did not succeed.
"We all have seen the signs of Power in the Dead City, faintly perceived through the aether. The Cult of Oran did gain acceptance in the courts of the Conclaveum, and I suspect among these three from Ord, as well."
A silence fell over the hall, deathly still. The only sound was that of rain pattering on the crystal dome above them. Adon plowed on.
"We turn a blind eye because we believe we are infallible but we can no longer deny the truth. The runes were of a form used by Iss. The three were meant as sacrifice and the placement of the heads to thwart Salvation."
"Supposition!" his mentor countered, frowning. It was interjected, clearly, to break his junior's stride. Adon looked at him in wonder, not comprehending why the man would want so desperately to hide what was clearly the truth.
"Are you all fools?!" Adon shouted and leveled a pointed finger at the assembly. The group as a whole suddenly erupted in angry argument and protest. Gesticulating and red-faced, the crowd was obviously incensed at his words. Adon shook his head in bafflement, finally turning toward the dais as the low voice of the Preceptor commanded his attention.
"Silence," he said softly. Then louder: "SILENCE!"
The cacophony of the assembly died down to hurried whispers, echoing through the vaulted space.
"I have heard enough," the Preceptor stood and smoothed his robe. He clasped his hands behind his back and looked toward the crystal dome of the temple. Rain now drummed upon the interlaced panes and covered the restless voices with its soft susurration. A peal of thunder broke his momentary pause and he surveyed the assembly, a grim smile upon his face.
"You see the danger don't you?" He started, and Adon felt a momentary relief that was soon dispelled. "I agree that Oran is involved here... insofar as he can create flights of fancy in a young mind."
Adon was about to retort but the Preceptor held up a silencing hand. "No, Adon. You have gone too far. Your mentor should have reined you in long ago. You forget your place: it is no longer of the Clave, but of the Temple. You know very little of these things, and this knowledge only comes with time. Perhaps in ten or so years you will see the folly of your ways --"
"Folly! How can you speak of folly, when you yourself see not the peril? The Temple itself is in jeopardy and you, in your blindness, do not see these signs." Adon looked imploringly into the crowd of the assembled, but they all stared blankly, some in shock, some waiting for further confrontation like spectators at theatre.
The Preceptor shook his head sadly. He looked to the priests and acolytes and then skyward to the dome as lightening flashed above. "I pray to Tarn that wisdom will fall upon you. I --"
A sudden clap of thunder exploded so loudly above them that it drowned out the rest of his words. As the booming echoes faded, there was a resounding pop and a sharp crack. All eyes turned upward to the crystalline dome. The air was thick with ozone and suddenly a dark fissure appeared in the dome, spreading quickly as rain pelted down on it, and then through it. Instinctively, Adon backed away from the center of the room, toward the entrance in the rear of the chamber. A few acolytes did the same, but the majority of the assemblage stared upward, as if frozen in mindless anticipation. It was though they were in a state of rapture; even Adon's eyes seemed riveted above. The Preceptor's quizzical gaze locked on the dome.
Adon shook his head to clear it. It was if some spell had tried to take hold of him, clouding his mind. He quickly motioned the acolytes out through the doors. He looked over his shoulder into the forum just as a tinkling cacophony of sound shattered the air behind him.
Sword-sized shards of broken crystal rained down upon the upward-gazing assembly. Adon could only stare in shock as the shrapnel speared down, impaling the majority of those standing motionless below. The room filled with a fine red mist of arterial blood, returning the hapless survivors to their senses. They cried out in despair, but soon their voices were overwhelmed by a hellish screeching that rose in pitch until Adon doubled over in agony. He felt a tugging on his arm as one of the acolytes sought to pull him further out of the forum, and it took all the strength he could muster to struggle the few feet over the threshold and not vomit. He began to close the doors behind him when he saw the creature descend on leathery wing in a coalescence of malignancy; it drifted down to where the Preceptor stood frozen amid the slowly-settling bloody mist.
Adon, watched in horror as the creature of Oran descended into the Sanctuary in front of the preceptor. Hellish Frost of Oran emanated outward, the mist of blood freezing and falling like garnet snow, then was buried by a white rime that enveloped everything. As he closed the door and ran to escape with the other acolytes, the slaughter began in earnest.
They ran, their breath misting in the newly entered cold. Adon led them down the winding stair and into a side chamber; he knew of only one possible way to escape. At the end of the hallway there was a small door that led to the back of the winery; behind the large casks of wine.
The creature's bestial scream howled through the catacombs of the Sequestery. Darkness engulfed them, as they felt their way past storage casks. That noise of scraping and oblivion, the sound of the water crackling into ice followed them. Adon shuddered; he knew there was an even chance that he led the four novices to their deaths as much as away.
He scraped his head on the low ceiling, sweat chilled by the cool dryness of the chamber. There was a grate here, rusted and loose from the chamber wall. He grabbed the novices one by one and shoved them toward it. Steel scraped on stone as they wrenched the grate from its rotting bolts, and there was a dull ring of metal as it fell to the floor. The sound of slithering and scales and gnashing of bones grew louder in the distance, but at last, the fourth novice was through, and Adon soon followed.
Adon knew the peril they were in, not just for their lives, but for their immortal souls. Now he prayed silently to Tarn as he pulled himself through the duct and along the mold-encrusted stones. He heard the shallow breathing ahead of him and knew that his charges were very close to panic. Still, in low tones, he urged them on. Somewhere behind, the sound of pursuit by what could only be a Deathwing had ceased. He shook his head and felt the sweat fall again from his skin. He pushed hard to keep the dark thoughts at bay, especially images of the winged death in the Temple and the Preceptor eviscerated, or worse, in the Sanctuary.
He had warned them, he had warned them. He reflected, sadly, that even in the end the Preceptor had been unbelieving, even as the Deathwing had sundered the man's flesh. Not so holy as to stop a Daemon came the bitter thought, and your much-vaunted "years" gave you no wisdom to foresee this. Adon's luck, or was it Tarn's gift, had been with him long enough to allow him escape from the massacre. And here they were, crawling through the tunnels beneath the winery.
Ahead, the novices had stopped and he saw a faint glow of red. What was this? He now could make out the faces of the four. Marella, she was the first. Then Jiyn, gods but he looked scared in the crimson light. Tabit and Frey stood silently shivering, they were the youngest, just boys really.
Adon squeezed ahead of them and looked out through the grate, feeling Marella's fear as he pressed against her. She touched his hand a moment, seeking comfort, and he turned his green eyes to her, somehow trying to convey a bit of strength. She smiled weakly and he was glad for that. Even through the dirt and sweat, she was a beautiful woman, and her attempt at bravery gave him a moment's courage. He looked through the grate and up at the Temple. They were at the tunnel's end, just outside the courtyard of the Sequestery.
He shoved hard at the grate and it came loose, even more easily than the other one had. Carefully he lowered it to the earth, and as he was about to squeeze through to the ground he heard Tabit and Frey scream. He looked down sharply, urging the aether to enhance his vision. He saw a snakelike tentacle wrap around the boys; then just as quickly they were pulled from his Vision.
"Daemon!" he hissed. Jiyn's scream fell short, strangled in mid-cry. Adon flung himself out of the tunnel, pulling Marella through as something, it, grabbed her ankles. He pulled her arms, anchoring his feet against the wall. Marella gasped in pain, her face turning red with the effort. Somewhere in the distance, Adon heard the rustling wings.
His muscles strained and he gasped; the air was breathtakingly cold and heavy with the fetid stench of Oran. He saw the skin on Marella's calves turn white. He looked into her eyes and saw a look of profound loss...and then she let go.
"No!" he shouted as she was pulled from his sight, and a low rumble of laughter more evil than he could imagine threatened to edge out all sanity. For a moment, he too was frozen, then he ran, blindly for a time, somehow managing to free himself at last from the Sequestery grounds and from what had become of Tarn Hold.
He ran, and a dark mocking cry followed him.

Chapter 1

Tom Smiling Wolf scrambled over some disintegrating rock, not wanting to get too close to the edge of the path. It was a long nasty fall to his left.
The horses were far behind in a hidden arroyo, and he led his small group on a narrow path above the main road - if you could call it that - that led to the citadel of Helm and the Great Wall. He paused on the rock outcropping looking over his shoulder; he could not help but have that feeling of being watched. Creeping over a rock shelf, he looked north and there it was: the Great Wall. It loomed in the distance, rising nearly to the clouds. Mist now cloaked the base of the edifice along the river hiding most of Helm.
He pushed his hair out of his eyes, his lithe corded frame pressed low to minimize his silhouette. Light drenched everything red, like some monochromatic painting of the old West, yet somehow the Wall was untouched by the bloody tint. It stood as a black gash stretching from horizon to horizon, unsettling him to his very core.
Even though evening was well upon them, they did not dare light a fire or torch. Not here, not anywhere, at least until they were well into the Plains of Straw, about two days on foot. Even then, they risked exposure.
He had come to the Wall with three of Torec's men, crossing the Plains from Paravel, all within two weeks. Getting close to the Wall was not the problem; they had made their way easily through the narrow gorge that was the only pass to the south from the city of Helm. The large column of soldiers was marching south; they had paralleled the road to avoid detection. Where were they going? He was not privy to that information. Why were they going? Frowning cynically, he knew that Myella was behind this sudden movement of the troops. Soldiers in the livery of the Temple of Oran led the column of the Black Guard of the Wall. After watching the column of troops pass by, he and Torec's men had retreated away from the gorge and now camped on the approach to the long curve of the bridge that spanned the river. Two stout towers stood on the south side of the wide span; there would be no sneaking over the causeway without coming under the scrutiny of the military contingent that protected it. There would be no fording the river either; here it rushed a deep, turbulent green.
He eyed The Great Wall, still a good mile away despite its seeming nearness, trying to make sense of the thing, for it surely was not man-made. Tom had never seen anything like it; its base cut with striations of granite, but above the flood line, the wall went from dark gray to black. Within its wet surface, were embedded huge, fossilized bones, grotesquely twisted together as if ready to spring out in some horrific attack. In the dreary early evening light, the surface had taken on a fine, wet sheen, as if the fluid seeped from its core. To the west and almost out of vision, the gloom the Wall finally merged with the tall cliffs that eventually became the Doran Range.
Before them was the only point of entrance to the Conclaveum west of Qwen. Here the wall split open, nearly a thousand feet wide: the Breach. Black in depth, and guarded by an island set in the middle of the river. Tom raised the spyglass Donon had handed him. The breach revealed the course of a river; flowing through it from the north. Intricate scaffolding spider webbed all the way to the summit of the Wall and huge braziers dotted the summit. Tom wondered if the Conclaveum had built a road up there, if that were even possible.
Below, and guarding the river, Kipris, Donon had called it, was the citadel of Helm, which sat on a small island. One tall tower marked the center, otherwise it was a low and imposing village, circled by walls that reached out into the water and enclosed the docks. If one wanted to gain entrance to the Conclaveum, one must first pass through Helm.
He sighed and lowered himself below the ridgeline. His four compatriots had already set about placing canvas windbreak over the dark niches to protect them, not from prying eyes, but rather the howling gale that usually sprung up and careened through the rock deformations. He gladly accepted water from Tyrhel, and slid into the narrow cave where Gayden was already putting down bedrolls. One of the things Tom had observed was that Torec's men did not talk much, even among themselves; they communicated mostly with their eyes and gestures. He wondered if this were a regional affectation, or a habit born of a mercenary's need for silence.
He leaned his bow quiver near his bedroll and sat down cross-legged, rubbing his one good eye. He squinted. His vision had been bothering him of late, for the past three months to be exact, since just before the Battle of the Seat. It could be anything, and it concerned him a little. Having been born three months prematurely, he had lost his right eye to infection. His left eye was okay, but not as sharp as he would like. Yet now, his vision would blur occasionally, finally taking on new clarity, then it would return as if nothing at all had happened.
It was not a good time for his vision to worsen, for sure. He shook his head and leaned it back against the cool stone. The men were readying to bed down, the quiet sounds of their toilet, a shallow cough, a whisper of conversation drifted over him. It was easy to forget he and his friends were in an alien world. Not so long ago, they came into this world through some dark sorcery, for some purpose they could not glean. Only a few short months, or an eternity, take your pick, he thought ruefully. It was definitely a shock, brought to a world where technology was non-existent and men commanded magic or wielded swords; all in a landscape riddled by oddities. Not too long ago, he was just another medical student hanging out with his friends at a Medieval Society Convention. Next thing you know he and his five friends were plucked out of the air and planted in a strange world where faction of the Conclaveum was trying to kill all who opposed them.
Not so different from their world that the finality of death was always present, he thought. Moreover, he and his friend had certainly dealt out their share. From almost the first moment they were brought here, Myella, daughter of the ruler of the Conclaveum, who sought to seize control for herself, had been hunted them tirelessly. She had stopped a nothing to gain control over them; from ensorceling Joe, to killing Chill, and capturing John. In the end they had prevailed, but barely, thanks to some well found allies; overcoming Myella in Paravel only now to find themselves awaiting an attack from her allies within the Conclaveum who wished to propel her to the Seat of Power. Tom feared that when it came, it would rush over them like a wave.
He felt a tugging at his arm and looked down to find Kiera, his ferret, pulling at his sleeve; she was hungry. He petted her absently and opened up a pocket to reveal a mix of dried meat and nuts. She looked at it, curiously for a moment, and began to forage for the morsels she liked best. Good ole Kiera, he thought. She never forgets the basics.
He heard Gayden laugh, and looked up. Donon was backing out of the cave, tugging his britches. Gayden thumbed after him.
"Apparently the beans he had disagreed with him!" Tyhrel joined in the laughter and Tom smirked. Tom Smiling Wolf, a son of the Sioux Nation went about rolling out his bedding. He put his long bowie knife next to the head of it and sat down to brush his teeth with linen gauze and a stick. There was a loud groan from just outside the windbreak and the sound of a wet splat. Donon's two friends laughed loudly.
"Perhaps he picked up something else?" Tom asked but was not too concerned as he had been the victim of similar circumstances for two days of the ride north.
Tyhrel shrugged and looked toward the break, now illuminated by the setting sun. All cast in russet. A dark pool of fluid began to seep under the canvas at the entrance.
"Oh, for Tarn's sake, Donon," scowled Gayden. "If you're gonna run, do it away from the cave." Tom looked up just as Kiera jumped into the fold of his over shirt, scared from the outburst.
Gayden twisted away, expecting the foul odor of excrement and instead caught the metallic tang of blood. "What?"
Tom dived for his knife. His quick reflexes sparing him from a grisly death as the windbreak disintegrated in a fusillade of steel spikes, several catching Gayden full on and nearly tearing his head off. Tom missing grabbing the hilt of his knife as he rolled right, behind an outcropping of stone, watching helplessly as Tyhrel made for the back of the cave, also catching spikes to his back, one impaling him to the cave wall.
Smiling Wolf hunched low against the stone, pushing deeper into the cave. He looked to Tyhrel, and in the dim light of the cavern could see he was still alive, if only barely. The man began to moan in pain and it slowly began to build. Tom noticed the projectile that had him pinned to the wall was vibrating and cooling from red-hot to black. Another gaping would sealed itself, but it looked as if the spike was writhing inside the man's body. His shrieking continued in waves now, reaching a crescendo until finally his eyes glazed over -- finally dead but only after interminable agony.
Tom did a swift self-inventory and noticed his arrows lay halfway to Tyrel's body and his bow was on the opposite wall. Okay, is the attack over? Surely they will be doing a head count, he thought.
Reaching out, he tried to touch the quiver with his fingers. Just as he got a grasp onto it shrapnel followed another series of low thuds as spikes imbedded in the back wall, tearing to pieces the remains of Tyhrel. One painfully grazed his ribs as he had leaned over, tearing his shirt and leaving a scrape. He ignored the pain and shrank further back into the cave, flinching as a cool breeze touched his neck. A quick glance upward showed him a narrow chimney and the first glimmering of stars outside. But was it too narrow?
He began to shrug out of anything that might catch on the stone and trap him. His satchel and Bowie he tied to a thin piece of rope. Next came Kiera; not wanting to crush her, he put her in the satchel and tied it closed. He would pull everything up after he got out, if he got out.
It was a hard squeeze for the first three feet, and he thought at the last point he would not get past. Leading with his right arm and scraping the left side of his face and body along the rough stone, with one final heave, he twisted through the narrow chimney and into a wider opening less than six feet from his starting point. Now the opening above was wide enough for two men.
He quickly pulled up the satchel and the knife and strapped them on. There were enough little ledges and grooves here that he could easily pull himself up the rest of the way. In a moment, he was ready to look.
Carefully he pulled himself out, watching for any attack, but none came. There were large outcroppings of malformed granite all around him. He lay flat and pulled himself in the opposite direction from the attack. He had to get as far away as possible. Behind him, he heard the sound of movement. Whoever it was, they were not concerned about stealth. He recognized the clinking of armor and heavy steps.
Finally he came to a narrow passage with high walls of rock on either side. He slid in and waited.
Tyhrel, Donon, Gayden, all dead in a manner of seconds, and only luck had spared him.
They were slaughtered, Tom thought angrily as he looked around the dark gorge. Night had fully fallen now. He had to get back to the horses, head southward to the Plains. This place was a maze of pitfalls, sinkholes and switchbacks; according to Tyrhel: warped by the sorcery used to raise the Great Wall.
Who were their assailants? he wondered. He had only heard them. It would probably serve him well if he spied them out; they would not expect that, maybe they did not even know they had missed one of their intended victims.
He slid past the rock formation and into another gulch, it was narrow but he could squeeze through. He splashed into the cold runoff and stopped abruptly, listening. Nothing.
He would follow the flow of the runoff for a time, even though he knew it would lead toward the river at the base of the Wall rather than in the direction he needed to go. The rock formations that thrust their way, finger-like to the sky, were jagged and treacherous.
Kiera crawled up around his neck, licking salt from his face. She smelled the blood on him and knew it was his, though luckily, a small one that would not hinder him for the time being. He looked down, barely able to see in the pale moonlight. The spike had narrowly missed him, scraping along his ribs and giving him what looked like a third degree burn; in the time he had left the cave it had become a whitened blister surrounded by black and red char.
Nice, he thought. Moreover, very unnatural.
He scratched the ferret absently behind the ear, and then set her back into the pouch she had managed worm from. The sooner he got out of this rocky maze the better.
A short time later, he stopped and sank to his haunches, needing a moment of rest. It was funny how suddenly the stars above could give him enough light to see by, even in what seemed the blackest of gorges. Wondering if he would get out of this one alive, he leaned back against the cool rock and winced at the sound of his knife's hilt grating on stone.
Shit! He swore to himself. Such stupid mistake could get him killed.
Not a sound, except the wind whistling through the rocks. Nothing.
Then, a shadow, further down the gorge. He rolled to the side, hearing the low thump, and the ringing, as he saw a spike bury itself in the sandstone. Looking toward its source, he saw a figure outlined by a backdrop of constellations. The man's helmet obscured his face, but the weapon was memorable: a long, black staff, about two inches in diameter -- almost like a gun barrel -- that made a thumping sound as it spewed a spike. His assailant moved off to the right, trailing a hellish red glow. Where did he go? Knife in hand, Tom looked for the form in the gloom.
Again, Tom was certain he could make out the dark figure near the end of the gorge, but then it was gone. Wait...other sounds, of scrabbling rocks and falling pebbles. Someone suddenly stood before him, not fifty feet away.
"So Smiling Wolf," he heard a raspy voice. It reminded him of something or someone he could not place. "My friend has come to Helm. You must not be happy with what you achieved in Paravel." His stalker walked slowly up the gorge towards him, using the staff as a walking stick. Tom could make out the symbol on the man's tabard; it was a hand, palm outward: The Hand of Keth.
"Well I'm in some deep shit now," he whispered. He had heard of the Hands of Keth. Then louder: "I'm surprised you haven't killed me yet."
"We don't want to kill you, Tom."
Smiling Wolf stepped back. He knew where he had heard the voice before and the familiar shape of the man's shadow, but that was impossible. He shook his head. He was no match for that staff. He sheathed his knife and relaxed, seemingly awaiting his fate.
"Is it that easy, Tom? Will you surrender? Guyle knew you were here so he sent us to find you. The others were of no consequence. But, you are another matter." The stout man was almost upon the Sioux. He lowered the staff, the point leveled at Tom's chest.
Tom dodged to the side at the last second, the thump almost knocking his breath away. He seemed to scale the side of the rock wall. The Hand of Keth turned and Smiling Wolf cast his last three shuriken at him. Two bounced harmlessly off the mail, the third lodged in the helmet, just above the visor.
Great! he thought somewhat cynically, as he took off down the narrow gorge. He looked back just as he was about to round the bend. The Hand of Keth, on one knee, hastily pulled the helm from his head. Even in the starlight, Tom could see the stout features, the black hair, and the scar at the temple.
He sprinted as fast as he could, hardly hampered by the close quarters of the passage. He stopped abruptly, the sound of others around him. Looking ahead, all he could perceive was blackness; the rock formations merged and formed a tunnel.
Something slammed into his wounded side and a groan escaped his lips. He rolled forward to avoid the slash of the bladed weapon. Blood flowed freely down his side. Instinctively his own knife snapped out and he slashed back, over his shoulder. Turning he saw that he had pierced through the visor of one of the Hands. It lay there...dead?
"Tom...there is no escape. Not even death is an escape." He shuddered at the sound of the voice behind him. He dove into the shadow of the tunnel and, too late, realized that his pouch, and Kiera, lay on the ground at the Hand's feet; the strap severed by the creature's sword. He stopped and turned to go back, but his feet slipped on the loose gravel and he fell to his knees.
The Hand of Keth stepped over his dead comrade and walked to the pouch that lay at the foot of the tunnel. It squirmed on the rocky floor. He stooped and picked up the satchel. Pulling his gauntlet off, he grabbed the ferret from the bag, holding her aloft. The ferret looked at him and saw the blankness staring back. She bit furiously at the man's hand, between thumb and forefinger, and drew a dark bead of blood. The man grimaced, then a sneer twisted his lips and he squeezed.
The high-pitched squeal of the animal split the night, shattering the night. Finally, there came a sharp snap and the animal went limp. The Hand of Keth cast the limp carcass to the side.
"NO! You sonofabitch!" Tom hefted his knife ready to charge forward when the ground fell out below him.
...Slip, drop, rush and he was falling into a sinkhole, his stomach in his throat. The sinkhole had led to a tunnel that had flowed into another crevasse. It was a chute more like, then a cascade of water and rock. He slid along the steep grade in about three inches of water. For one mad moment, it crossed his mind that this was like a water-park ride, but then a jutting rock nearly cost him his good eye and he returned to the reality of the danger.
Bruised and battered, he tumbled along the winding way of the chute.
Just as he was starting to wonder if this roller-coaster ride would go on forever, Tom Smiling Wolf felt that stomach churning feeling of weightlessness, then a rush of air in his ears that almost deafened him. The Sioux shot out of the water slide and into open space, fifty feet above the river that ran along the base of the Great Wall.
What next? came the fleeting thought as he plunged into the icy water. Grazing his backside on the rocks, he fought for the surface. The current was strong and the turbulence fierce, but his head finally broke the surface. As he gulped for air, he began frantic strokes toward the south side of the river. At first his efforts were to no avail, he was dragged toward a dark crack in the base of the Wall. A spillway? He fought even harder and his strokes brought him nearer the south bank. He went with the current now, just keeping afloat. It seemed forever in the icy water, but he knew it was only moments as he passed beneath the bridge to Helm and floated by the docks. Once the current took him past Helm, he struck out for the south bank with renewed vigor. As he approached the shallows, he no longer felt the tug of the water's course. Bobbing in the choppy river, he tried to wipe the water from his good eye, but it blurred, and then doubled... how.
Of all times for this to happen! He reached out for a rock outcropping but missed. He tried again. He had no depth perception with one eye, but...his vision blurred, doubled, and then resolved into a clarity that was almost painful. The two images fused and became one.
He grabbed the rock and pulled himself to shore. Leaning against a boulder, he gazed at the black water that rushed past him into the night. Everything gone but his knife, he stared at his hands, torn and bruised by the sharp rocks. His wounded side was now only a dull, painful throb, numbed by the cold water.
He smiled grimly. Now he knew why his vision had been bothering him.
The Hand peered over the rim of the sinkhole that had engulfed the Outlander. No expression came from him; rather he just hefted the staff, his kris-voulge, and began his trek back to the Great Wall and Guyle, his master.

EXTRACT FOR
The Dead Gate

(J.J. Eliyas)


Prologue

"And your findings?" asked the Preceptor from the pulpit. He was a severe man in robes of creme and gold thread.
The acolyte looked to his master and waited deferentially for him to respond. It would not be proper to speak out of turn to the Preceptor. There were protocols here that even someone with his background could not transgress.
The priest cleared his throat and nervous sweat welled on his balding pate. The Assembly of Inquiry was quiet, several hundred waiting to hear what evidence the two had found.
"It appears that we were mistaken, young Adon and I," the priest said tentatively. Adon shot him a startled glance but kept his mouth shut.
"The acolytes in question, all three, appear to have been decapitated as a result of the cave in. It was an accident."
"Untrue!" Adon blurted out, his green eyes darting to the Preceptor. A murmur began to spread through the assembly.
"What is this?" the Preceptor asked in a gravel-filled voice. He lowered his gaze to Adon.
"It is not your place, Adon," his master warned, but it was half-hearted.
"That is not what we found. A falling pillar does not decapitate three acolytes. It does not line up their bodies, face down and naked, or place their heads, sans eyes, upon the back of a different body. Disasters do not treat corpses this way!"
The Preceptor frowned grimly as the Assembly erupted in dismay, several acolytes filtered in from the alcove to listen in and the Preceptor of the Temple of Tarn had to strike the podium with his mace to get order.
"Elaborate," he said sonorously.
"These three were from Ord. They came after it fell, fleeing what happened there. We never thought they were suspect but when we questioned their fellows, little was known about them. They kept to themselves.
"How does that affect anything?" came one shout from the assembly. "After all they went through in Ord."
"In and of itself it does not," Adon retorted. "In Ord, Myella and Duran corrupted the Temple, and brought forth the minions of Oran, leaving a dead city, much like Narn-toc. Here we found the beginning of similar necromancing. The remnants of what they were doing were left in the catacombs.
"There is blood not theirs, and a strange black fluid. It lies near dark runes burned in the wall. And there is a sense of deep darkness there, I cannot fathom. It is foul and corrupt."
"My young Acolyte has a vivid imagination," the priest stammered. He himself had not felt the darkness his acolyte talked of, and it galled him as much as it frightened him that he was not as adept in the Arts as his pupil. "Workers who found the bodies may have placed them such. And the runes could easily predate this Temple."
A murmur of assent rumbled through the Assembly.
"Are you all blind?" asked Adon in frustration. "Before you is evidence of Oran's involvement. They were trying to open a Gate, or did. I pray to Tarn they did not succeed.
"We all have seen the signs of Power in the Dead City, faintly perceived through the aether. The Cult of Oran did gain acceptance in the courts of the Conclaveum, and I suspect among these three from Ord, as well."
A silence fell over the hall, deathly still. The only sound was that of rain pattering on the crystal dome above them. Adon plowed on.
"We turn a blind eye because we believe we are infallible but we can no longer deny the truth. The runes were of a form used by Iss. The three were meant as sacrifice and the placement of the heads to thwart Salvation."
"Supposition!" his mentor countered, frowning. It was interjected, clearly, to break his junior's stride. Adon looked at him in wonder, not comprehending why the man would want so desperately to hide what was clearly the truth.
"Are you all fools?!" Adon shouted and leveled a pointed finger at the assembly. The group as a whole suddenly erupted in angry argument and protest. Gesticulating and red-faced, the crowd was obviously incensed at his words. Adon shook his head in bafflement, finally turning toward the dais as the low voice of the Preceptor commanded his attention.
"Silence," he said softly. Then louder: "SILENCE!"
The cacophony of the assembly died down to hurried whispers, echoing through the vaulted space.
"I have heard enough," the Preceptor stood and smoothed his robe. He clasped his hands behind his back and looked toward the crystal dome of the temple. Rain now drummed upon the interlaced panes and covered the restless voices with its soft susurration. A peal of thunder broke his momentary pause and he surveyed the assembly, a grim smile upon his face.
"You see the danger don't you?" He started, and Adon felt a momentary relief that was soon dispelled. "I agree that Oran is involved here... insofar as he can create flights of fancy in a young mind."
Adon was about to retort but the Preceptor held up a silencing hand. "No, Adon. You have gone too far. Your mentor should have reined you in long ago. You forget your place: it is no longer of the Clave, but of the Temple. You know very little of these things, and this knowledge only comes with time. Perhaps in ten or so years you will see the folly of your ways --"
"Folly! How can you speak of folly, when you yourself see not the peril? The Temple itself is in jeopardy and you, in your blindness, do not see these signs." Adon looked imploringly into the crowd of the assembled, but they all stared blankly, some in shock, some waiting for further confrontation like spectators at theatre.
The Preceptor shook his head sadly. He looked to the priests and acolytes and then skyward to the dome as lightening flashed above. "I pray to Tarn that wisdom will fall upon you. I --"
A sudden clap of thunder exploded so loudly above them that it drowned out the rest of his words. As the booming echoes faded, there was a resounding pop and a sharp crack. All eyes turned upward to the crystalline dome. The air was thick with ozone and suddenly a dark fissure appeared in the dome, spreading quickly as rain pelted down on it, and then through it. Instinctively, Adon backed away from the center of the room, toward the entrance in the rear of the chamber. A few acolytes did the same, but the majority of the assemblage stared upward, as if frozen in mindless anticipation. It was though they were in a state of rapture; even Adon's eyes seemed riveted above. The Preceptor's quizzical gaze locked on the dome.
Adon shook his head to clear it. It was if some spell had tried to take hold of him, clouding his mind. He quickly motioned the acolytes out through the doors. He looked over his shoulder into the forum just as a tinkling cacophony of sound shattered the air behind him.
Sword-sized shards of broken crystal rained down upon the upward-gazing assembly. Adon could only stare in shock as the shrapnel speared down, impaling the majority of those standing motionless below. The room filled with a fine red mist of arterial blood, returning the hapless survivors to their senses. They cried out in despair, but soon their voices were overwhelmed by a hellish screeching that rose in pitch until Adon doubled over in agony. He felt a tugging on his arm as one of the acolytes sought to pull him further out of the forum, and it took all the strength he could muster to struggle the few feet over the threshold and not vomit. He began to close the doors behind him when he saw the creature descend on leathery wing in a coalescence of malignancy; it drifted down to where the Preceptor stood frozen amid the slowly-settling bloody mist.
Adon, watched in horror as the creature of Oran descended into the Sanctuary in front of the preceptor. Hellish Frost of Oran emanated outward, the mist of blood freezing and falling like garnet snow, then was buried by a white rime that enveloped everything. As he closed the door and ran to escape with the other acolytes, the slaughter began in earnest.
They ran, their breath misting in the newly entered cold. Adon led them down the winding stair and into a side chamber; he knew of only one possible way to escape. At the end of the hallway there was a small door that led to the back of the winery; behind the large casks of wine.
The creature's bestial scream howled through the catacombs of the Sequestery. Darkness engulfed them, as they felt their way past storage casks. That noise of scraping and oblivion, the sound of the water crackling into ice followed them. Adon shuddered; he knew there was an even chance that he led the four novices to their deaths as much as away.
He scraped his head on the low ceiling, sweat chilled by the cool dryness of the chamber. There was a grate here, rusted and loose from the chamber wall. He grabbed the novices one by one and shoved them toward it. Steel scraped on stone as they wrenched the grate from its rotting bolts, and there was a dull ring of metal as it fell to the floor. The sound of slithering and scales and gnashing of bones grew louder in the distance, but at last, the fourth novice was through, and Adon soon followed.
Adon knew the peril they were in, not just for their lives, but for their immortal souls. Now he prayed silently to Tarn as he pulled himself through the duct and along the mold-encrusted stones. He heard the shallow breathing ahead of him and knew that his charges were very close to panic. Still, in low tones, he urged them on. Somewhere behind, the sound of pursuit by what could only be a Deathwing had ceased. He shook his head and felt the sweat fall again from his skin. He pushed hard to keep the dark thoughts at bay, especially images of the winged death in the Temple and the Preceptor eviscerated, or worse, in the Sanctuary.
He had warned them, he had warned them. He reflected, sadly, that even in the end the Preceptor had been unbelieving, even as the Deathwing had sundered the man's flesh. Not so holy as to stop a Daemon came the bitter thought, and your much-vaunted "years" gave you no wisdom to foresee this. Adon's luck, or was it Tarn's gift, had been with him long enough to allow him escape from the massacre. And here they were, crawling through the tunnels beneath the winery.
Ahead, the novices had stopped and he saw a faint glow of red. What was this? He now could make out the faces of the four. Marella, she was the first. Then Jiyn, gods but he looked scared in the crimson light. Tabit and Frey stood silently shivering, they were the youngest, just boys really.
Adon squeezed ahead of them and looked out through the grate, feeling Marella's fear as he pressed against her. She touched his hand a moment, seeking comfort, and he turned his green eyes to her, somehow trying to convey a bit of strength. She smiled weakly and he was glad for that. Even through the dirt and sweat, she was a beautiful woman, and her attempt at bravery gave him a moment's courage. He looked through the grate and up at the Temple. They were at the tunnel's end, just outside the courtyard of the Sequestery.
He shoved hard at the grate and it came loose, even more easily than the other one had. Carefully he lowered it to the earth, and as he was about to squeeze through to the ground he heard Tabit and Frey scream. He looked down sharply, urging the aether to enhance his vision. He saw a snakelike tentacle wrap around the boys; then just as quickly they were pulled from his Vision.
"Daemon!" he hissed. Jiyn's scream fell short, strangled in mid-cry. Adon flung himself out of the tunnel, pulling Marella through as something, it, grabbed her ankles. He pulled her arms, anchoring his feet against the wall. Marella gasped in pain, her face turning red with the effort. Somewhere in the distance, Adon heard the rustling wings.
His muscles strained and he gasped; the air was breathtakingly cold and heavy with the fetid stench of Oran. He saw the skin on Marella's calves turn white. He looked into her eyes and saw a look of profound loss...and then she let go.
"No!" he shouted as she was pulled from his sight, and a low rumble of laughter more evil than he could imagine threatened to edge out all sanity. For a moment, he too was frozen, then he ran, blindly for a time, somehow managing to free himself at last from the Sequestery grounds and from what had become of Tarn Hold.
He ran, and a dark mocking cry followed him.

Chapter 1

Tom Smiling Wolf scrambled over some disintegrating rock, not wanting to get too close to the edge of the path. It was a long nasty fall to his left.
The horses were far behind in a hidden arroyo, and he led his small group on a narrow path above the main road - if you could call it that - that led to the citadel of Helm and the Great Wall. He paused on the rock outcropping looking over his shoulder; he could not help but have that feeling of being watched. Creeping over a rock shelf, he looked north and there it was: the Great Wall. It loomed in the distance, rising nearly to the clouds. Mist now cloaked the base of the edifice along the river hiding most of Helm.
He pushed his hair out of his eyes, his lithe corded frame pressed low to minimize his silhouette. Light drenched everything red, like some monochromatic painting of the old West, yet somehow the Wall was untouched by the bloody tint. It stood as a black gash stretching from horizon to horizon, unsettling him to his very core.
Even though evening was well upon them, they did not dare light a fire or torch. Not here, not anywhere, at least until they were well into the Plains of Straw, about two days on foot. Even then, they risked exposure.
He had come to the Wall with three of Torec's men, crossing the Plains from Paravel, all within two weeks. Getting close to the Wall was not the problem; they had made their way easily through the narrow gorge that was the only pass to the south from the city of Helm. The large column of soldiers was marching south; they had paralleled the road to avoid detection. Where were they going? He was not privy to that information. Why were they going? Frowning cynically, he knew that Myella was behind this sudden movement of the troops. Soldiers in the livery of the Temple of Oran led the column of the Black Guard of the Wall. After watching the column of troops pass by, he and Torec's men had retreated away from the gorge and now camped on the approach to the long curve of the bridge that spanned the river. Two stout towers stood on the south side of the wide span; there would be no sneaking over the causeway without coming under the scrutiny of the military contingent that protected it. There would be no fording the river either; here it rushed a deep, turbulent green.
He eyed The Great Wall, still a good mile away despite its seeming nearness, trying to make sense of the thing, for it surely was not man-made. Tom had never seen anything like it; its base cut with striations of granite, but above the flood line, the wall went from dark gray to black. Within its wet surface, were embedded huge, fossilized bones, grotesquely twisted together as if ready to spring out in some horrific attack. In the dreary early evening light, the surface had taken on a fine, wet sheen, as if the fluid seeped from its core. To the west and almost out of vision, the gloom the Wall finally merged with the tall cliffs that eventually became the Doran Range.
Before them was the only point of entrance to the Conclaveum west of Qwen. Here the wall split open, nearly a thousand feet wide: the Breach. Black in depth, and guarded by an island set in the middle of the river. Tom raised the spyglass Donon had handed him. The breach revealed the course of a river; flowing through it from the north. Intricate scaffolding spider webbed all the way to the summit of the Wall and huge braziers dotted the summit. Tom wondered if the Conclaveum had built a road up there, if that were even possible.
Below, and guarding the river, Kipris, Donon had called it, was the citadel of Helm, which sat on a small island. One tall tower marked the center, otherwise it was a low and imposing village, circled by walls that reached out into the water and enclosed the docks. If one wanted to gain entrance to the Conclaveum, one must first pass through Helm.
He sighed and lowered himself below the ridgeline. His four compatriots had already set about placing canvas windbreak over the dark niches to protect them, not from prying eyes, but rather the howling gale that usually sprung up and careened through the rock deformations. He gladly accepted water from Tyrhel, and slid into the narrow cave where Gayden was already putting down bedrolls. One of the things Tom had observed was that Torec's men did not talk much, even among themselves; they communicated mostly with their eyes and gestures. He wondered if this were a regional affectation, or a habit born of a mercenary's need for silence.
He leaned his bow quiver near his bedroll and sat down cross-legged, rubbing his one good eye. He squinted. His vision had been bothering him of late, for the past three months to be exact, since just before the Battle of the Seat. It could be anything, and it concerned him a little. Having been born three months prematurely, he had lost his right eye to infection. His left eye was okay, but not as sharp as he would like. Yet now, his vision would blur occasionally, finally taking on new clarity, then it would return as if nothing at all had happened.
It was not a good time for his vision to worsen, for sure. He shook his head and leaned it back against the cool stone. The men were readying to bed down, the quiet sounds of their toilet, a shallow cough, a whisper of conversation drifted over him. It was easy to forget he and his friends were in an alien world. Not so long ago, they came into this world through some dark sorcery, for some purpose they could not glean. Only a few short months, or an eternity, take your pick, he thought ruefully. It was definitely a shock, brought to a world where technology was non-existent and men commanded magic or wielded swords; all in a landscape riddled by oddities. Not too long ago, he was just another medical student hanging out with his friends at a Medieval Society Convention. Next thing you know he and his five friends were plucked out of the air and planted in a strange world where faction of the Conclaveum was trying to kill all who opposed them.
Not so different from their world that the finality of death was always present, he thought. Moreover, he and his friend had certainly dealt out their share. From almost the first moment they were brought here, Myella, daughter of the ruler of the Conclaveum, who sought to seize control for herself, had been hunted them tirelessly. She had stopped a nothing to gain control over them; from ensorceling Joe, to killing Chill, and capturing John. In the end they had prevailed, but barely, thanks to some well found allies; overcoming Myella in Paravel only now to find themselves awaiting an attack from her allies within the Conclaveum who wished to propel her to the Seat of Power. Tom feared that when it came, it would rush over them like a wave.
He felt a tugging at his arm and looked down to find Kiera, his ferret, pulling at his sleeve; she was hungry. He petted her absently and opened up a pocket to reveal a mix of dried meat and nuts. She looked at it, curiously for a moment, and began to forage for the morsels she liked best. Good ole Kiera, he thought. She never forgets the basics.
He heard Gayden laugh, and looked up. Donon was backing out of the cave, tugging his britches. Gayden thumbed after him.
"Apparently the beans he had disagreed with him!" Tyhrel joined in the laughter and Tom smirked. Tom Smiling Wolf, a son of the Sioux Nation went about rolling out his bedding. He put his long bowie knife next to the head of it and sat down to brush his teeth with linen gauze and a stick. There was a loud groan from just outside the windbreak and the sound of a wet splat. Donon's two friends laughed loudly.
"Perhaps he picked up something else?" Tom asked but was not too concerned as he had been the victim of similar circumstances for two days of the ride north.
Tyhrel shrugged and looked toward the break, now illuminated by the setting sun. All cast in russet. A dark pool of fluid began to seep under the canvas at the entrance.
"Oh, for Tarn's sake, Donon," scowled Gayden. "If you're gonna run, do it away from the cave." Tom looked up just as Kiera jumped into the fold of his over shirt, scared from the outburst.
Gayden twisted away, expecting the foul odor of excrement and instead caught the metallic tang of blood. "What?"
Tom dived for his knife. His quick reflexes sparing him from a grisly death as the windbreak disintegrated in a fusillade of steel spikes, several catching Gayden full on and nearly tearing his head off. Tom missing grabbing the hilt of his knife as he rolled right, behind an outcropping of stone, watching helplessly as Tyhrel made for the back of the cave, also catching spikes to his back, one impaling him to the cave wall.
Smiling Wolf hunched low against the stone, pushing deeper into the cave. He looked to Tyhrel, and in the dim light of the cavern could see he was still alive, if only barely. The man began to moan in pain and it slowly began to build. Tom noticed the projectile that had him pinned to the wall was vibrating and cooling from red-hot to black. Another gaping would sealed itself, but it looked as if the spike was writhing inside the man's body. His shrieking continued in waves now, reaching a crescendo until finally his eyes glazed over -- finally dead but only after interminable agony.
Tom did a swift self-inventory and noticed his arrows lay halfway to Tyrel's body and his bow was on the opposite wall. Okay, is the attack over? Surely they will be doing a head count, he thought.
Reaching out, he tried to touch the quiver with his fingers. Just as he got a grasp onto it shrapnel followed another series of low thuds as spikes imbedded in the back wall, tearing to pieces the remains of Tyhrel. One painfully grazed his ribs as he had leaned over, tearing his shirt and leaving a scrape. He ignored the pain and shrank further back into the cave, flinching as a cool breeze touched his neck. A quick glance upward showed him a narrow chimney and the first glimmering of stars outside. But was it too narrow?
He began to shrug out of anything that might catch on the stone and trap him. His satchel and Bowie he tied to a thin piece of rope. Next came Kiera; not wanting to crush her, he put her in the satchel and tied it closed. He would pull everything up after he got out, if he got out.
It was a hard squeeze for the first three feet, and he thought at the last point he would not get past. Leading with his right arm and scraping the left side of his face and body along the rough stone, with one final heave, he twisted through the narrow chimney and into a wider opening less than six feet from his starting point. Now the opening above was wide enough for two men.
He quickly pulled up the satchel and the knife and strapped them on. There were enough little ledges and grooves here that he could easily pull himself up the rest of the way. In a moment, he was ready to look.
Carefully he pulled himself out, watching for any attack, but none came. There were large outcroppings of malformed granite all around him. He lay flat and pulled himself in the opposite direction from the attack. He had to get as far away as possible. Behind him, he heard the sound of movement. Whoever it was, they were not concerned about stealth. He recognized the clinking of armor and heavy steps.
Finally he came to a narrow passage with high walls of rock on either side. He slid in and waited.
Tyhrel, Donon, Gayden, all dead in a manner of seconds, and only luck had spared him.
They were slaughtered, Tom thought angrily as he looked around the dark gorge. Night had fully fallen now. He had to get back to the horses, head southward to the Plains. This place was a maze of pitfalls, sinkholes and switchbacks; according to Tyrhel: warped by the sorcery used to raise the Great Wall.
Who were their assailants? he wondered. He had only heard them. It would probably serve him well if he spied them out; they would not expect that, maybe they did not even know they had missed one of their intended victims.
He slid past the rock formation and into another gulch, it was narrow but he could squeeze through. He splashed into the cold runoff and stopped abruptly, listening. Nothing.
He would follow the flow of the runoff for a time, even though he knew it would lead toward the river at the base of the Wall rather than in the direction he needed to go. The rock formations that thrust their way, finger-like to the sky, were jagged and treacherous.
Kiera crawled up around his neck, licking salt from his face. She smelled the blood on him and knew it was his, though luckily, a small one that would not hinder him for the time being. He looked down, barely able to see in the pale moonlight. The spike had narrowly missed him, scraping along his ribs and giving him what looked like a third degree burn; in the time he had left the cave it had become a whitened blister surrounded by black and red char.
Nice, he thought. Moreover, very unnatural.
He scratched the ferret absently behind the ear, and then set her back into the pouch she had managed worm from. The sooner he got out of this rocky maze the better.
A short time later, he stopped and sank to his haunches, needing a moment of rest. It was funny how suddenly the stars above could give him enough light to see by, even in what seemed the blackest of gorges. Wondering if he would get out of this one alive, he leaned back against the cool rock and winced at the sound of his knife's hilt grating on stone.
Shit! He swore to himself. Such stupid mistake could get him killed.
Not a sound, except the wind whistling through the rocks. Nothing.
Then, a shadow, further down the gorge. He rolled to the side, hearing the low thump, and the ringing, as he saw a spike bury itself in the sandstone. Looking toward its source, he saw a figure outlined by a backdrop of constellations. The man's helmet obscured his face, but the weapon was memorable: a long, black staff, about two inches in diameter -- almost like a gun barrel -- that made a thumping sound as it spewed a spike. His assailant moved off to the right, trailing a hellish red glow. Where did he go? Knife in hand, Tom looked for the form in the gloom.
Again, Tom was certain he could make out the dark figure near the end of the gorge, but then it was gone. Wait...other sounds, of scrabbling rocks and falling pebbles. Someone suddenly stood before him, not fifty feet away.
"So Smiling Wolf," he heard a raspy voice. It reminded him of something or someone he could not place. "My friend has come to Helm. You must not be happy with what you achieved in Paravel." His stalker walked slowly up the gorge towards him, using the staff as a walking stick. Tom could make out the symbol on the man's tabard; it was a hand, palm outward: The Hand of Keth.
"Well I'm in some deep shit now," he whispered. He had heard of the Hands of Keth. Then louder: "I'm surprised you haven't killed me yet."
"We don't want to kill you, Tom."
Smiling Wolf stepped back. He knew where he had heard the voice before and the familiar shape of the man's shadow, but that was impossible. He shook his head. He was no match for that staff. He sheathed his knife and relaxed, seemingly awaiting his fate.
"Is it that easy, Tom? Will you surrender? Guyle knew you were here so he sent us to find you. The others were of no consequence. But, you are another matter." The stout man was almost upon the Sioux. He lowered the staff, the point leveled at Tom's chest.
Tom dodged to the side at the last second, the thump almost knocking his breath away. He seemed to scale the side of the rock wall. The Hand of Keth turned and Smiling Wolf cast his last three shuriken at him. Two bounced harmlessly off the mail, the third lodged in the helmet, just above the visor.
Great! he thought somewhat cynically, as he took off down the narrow gorge. He looked back just as he was about to round the bend. The Hand of Keth, on one knee, hastily pulled the helm from his head. Even in the starlight, Tom could see the stout features, the black hair, and the scar at the temple.
He sprinted as fast as he could, hardly hampered by the close quarters of the passage. He stopped abruptly, the sound of others around him. Looking ahead, all he could perceive was blackness; the rock formations merged and formed a tunnel.
Something slammed into his wounded side and a groan escaped his lips. He rolled forward to avoid the slash of the bladed weapon. Blood flowed freely down his side. Instinctively his own knife snapped out and he slashed back, over his shoulder. Turning he saw that he had pierced through the visor of one of the Hands. It lay there...dead?
"Tom...there is no escape. Not even death is an escape." He shuddered at the sound of the voice behind him. He dove into the shadow of the tunnel and, too late, realized that his pouch, and Kiera, lay on the ground at the Hand's feet; the strap severed by the creature's sword. He stopped and turned to go back, but his feet slipped on the loose gravel and he fell to his knees.
The Hand of Keth stepped over his dead comrade and walked to the pouch that lay at the foot of the tunnel. It squirmed on the rocky floor. He stooped and picked up the satchel. Pulling his gauntlet off, he grabbed the ferret from the bag, holding her aloft. The ferret looked at him and saw the blankness staring back. She bit furiously at the man's hand, between thumb and forefinger, and drew a dark bead of blood. The man grimaced, then a sneer twisted his lips and he squeezed.
The high-pitched squeal of the animal split the night, shattering the night. Finally, there came a sharp snap and the animal went limp. The Hand of Keth cast the limp carcass to the side.
"NO! You sonofabitch!" Tom hefted his knife ready to charge forward when the ground fell out below him.
...Slip, drop, rush and he was falling into a sinkhole, his stomach in his throat. The sinkhole had led to a tunnel that had flowed into another crevasse. It was a chute more like, then a cascade of water and rock. He slid along the steep grade in about three inches of water. For one mad moment, it crossed his mind that this was like a water-park ride, but then a jutting rock nearly cost him his good eye and he returned to the reality of the danger.
Bruised and battered, he tumbled along the winding way of the chute.
Just as he was starting to wonder if this roller-coaster ride would go on forever, Tom Smiling Wolf felt that stomach churning feeling of weightlessness, then a rush of air in his ears that almost deafened him. The Sioux shot out of the water slide and into open space, fifty feet above the river that ran along the base of the Great Wall.
What next? came the fleeting thought as he plunged into the icy water. Grazing his backside on the rocks, he fought for the surface. The current was strong and the turbulence fierce, but his head finally broke the surface. As he gulped for air, he began frantic strokes toward the south side of the river. At first his efforts were to no avail, he was dragged toward a dark crack in the base of the Wall. A spillway? He fought even harder and his strokes brought him nearer the south bank. He went with the current now, just keeping afloat. It seemed forever in the icy water, but he knew it was only moments as he passed beneath the bridge to Helm and floated by the docks. Once the current took him past Helm, he struck out for the south bank with renewed vigor. As he approached the shallows, he no longer felt the tug of the water's course. Bobbing in the choppy river, he tried to wipe the water from his good eye, but it blurred, and then doubled... how.
Of all times for this to happen! He reached out for a rock outcropping but missed. He tried again. He had no depth perception with one eye, but...his vision blurred, doubled, and then resolved into a clarity that was almost painful. The two images fused and became one.
He grabbed the rock and pulled himself to shore. Leaning against a boulder, he gazed at the black water that rushed past him into the night. Everything gone but his knife, he stared at his hands, torn and bruised by the sharp rocks. His wounded side was now only a dull, painful throb, numbed by the cold water.
He smiled grimly. Now he knew why his vision had been bothering him.
The Hand peered over the rim of the sinkhole that had engulfed the Outlander. No expression came from him; rather he just hefted the staff, his kris-voulge, and began his trek back to the Great Wall and Guyle, his master.