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0.2. – The banished wolf

      The magical light sparkled behind the windows of the old log cabin. Inside, Ayla, the last of the Order of Interventors, was feeling powerful once again. The magic fizzed and crackled around her; alive, indomitable, just as it had in the old days, except that now she was no longer subject to Endarth’s restrictions on magic. Now nothing would stop her from using the pure energy that flowed between the two worlds, and she could unleash with no repercussions. She gritted her teeth and raised a fist above her head. Slowly, great swathes of energy spiralled around her feet, burning the old wooden boards, while her body emitted bursts of electricity like whips, their violence rumbling like thunder in her chest. She focused on the spell she held in her fist, while everything around her shook. She shouted the ancient words and opened her hand.

      The explosion was shattering, but made not a single sound, which made it even more terrifying. The log cabin, together with everything inside it vanished in a flash, at the same time as several hectares of the forest that surrounded the Interventor, leaving nothing to be seen but earth and bare rock. The sky and clouds opened, wiped out of existence; even the light and the wind lay outside the spell’s reach for a few moments.

      Ayla needed to blink a few times before the spots of light dancing in her eyes disappeared and she was able to focus, Afterwards, she smiled in satisfaction when she saw the smoke, black and greasy rising from the dead floor around her. Her magical powers had grown, now that she’d accepted the fact that she was a being of the Interstices, existing outside the space and time of Endarth. Her lack of a physical body was compensated by an excess of magical energy, something that under the current circumstances was extremely valuable. She slowly crossed her legs and sat down on the ground, getting her breath back. She closed her eyes, waiting.

      A moment later when she opened them, she found herself back in her log cabin once again. And she didn’t need to look outside to confirm that everything was back how it had been at the exact moment of her sacrifice.

      “I’m back. No doubt about that,” she muttered.

      “You always had that power, child. But you lost it. You paid us no heed, you didn’t want to listen, and in the end you fell apart,” said the voice of an old woman from behind her.

      “Quite the opposite, I regained my power when I began to ignore all of you. You’d turned me onto a child. You fed on my fears and used them to make me smaller and smaller until you almost destroyed me,” Ayla wanted to reply. But the words wouldn’t come. She knew it wasn’t necessary.

      “No! You can’t put the blame on us. We’ve protected you, that’s what we’ve done”, scolded one of the voices.

      “You can’t run away from us child. We’re a part of you. You created us to make your imprisonment bearable,” added another.

      “You’re the only one left, in Endarth and in the Interstices. We only stay with you because we know that you are doomed.”

      “Be silent,” said Ayla. Deep down, she still had a few doubts about that. Were the voices the result of the decades of her cruel confinement, with no temporal guidance whatsoever? Or were they part of the souls that had remained trapped in the Interstices and had managed to reach her? The Interventor had no way of knowing and feared that perhaps she never would. But she hadn’t forgotten the most important thing: she was the one in charge of the situation now.

      She turned to look at the soul gems, one of them was glowing faintly green. And she had an Elven archer. Now it was a question of waiting for the next chosen one. She sat up and feeling a light breeze on her face found herself at the entrance to a city in ruins, at the foot of an imposing white wall that was now blackened and falling down in many places. The name came to her straight away, together with a wave of anguish: she was by the gates of Taldrim, the White City, one of the most important strategic points in Tyrennor during the First Age. The end result of years of co-operation between men and dwarves, crystallised in unimaginable technological advances in fields as far removed from each other as military development and agriculture, although the greatest achievement had been its magnificent wall, the wall that had transformed the city into a huge impregnable fortress.

      Ayla shook her head, considering things from the perspective of here and now. The devastation that surrounded her reminded her that the word impregnable needed to be qualified: almost impregnable. When had the White City fallen? How had it been possible, whose armies had defeated it? The proud towers were in ruins, the ancient litanies that spoke of nobility and valour once engraved on their walls wiped out. The coats of arms of all those thousands of noble families sculpted in the walls were now unrecognisable. Nothing at all was left of that proud jewel.

      Ayla took her first step towards the ruins with effort. Her heart beat in her mouth as she wandered around the city, invisible to the few remaining inhabitants, feeling like little more than the ghost of a past age. The thought brought the sad truth home to her: the noble city of Taldrim was not only dead, but its corpse had been desecrated and it had been turned into a rotting zombie. The new settlements erected amongst the rubble of the former city were dotted anarchically around the outskirts under the shelter of the wall, and were infested with fraudsters, thieves, murderers and other social outcasts.

      There was one thing Ayla had no doubt about at all. It was a massive struggle for humanity to reach the heights of kindness and compassion, but a plunge into a pit of perversion and malice was achieved with no trouble at all. In this regard, the human race championed over the elves and dwarves. And this infuriated her.

      She stopped in front of a particular building that clung to one of the more solid parts of the wall. And she knew that she was exactly where she should be. Somehow, in ways that were hidden even from her, her Master’s magic had shown her the way. And it had brought her to the Brown Bear Tavern.

***

      The Brown Bear Tavern was extremely popular with travellers passing through Taldrim. Inside there were only a few candles to lighten the gloom, a handful of bar stools and some tables scattered around, which suited the clientele just fine – they wanted a quiet, anonymous place where they could drink themselves into oblivion. Very often, if your road took you through Taldrim, you’d feel the need to forget about everything for a night before continuing on your way.

      The tavern keeper was a short, robust man wearing an apron that showed signs of the same lack of hygiene that the rest of the establishment suffered from, and he was cleaning glasses without much enthusiasm. His name was Warden, and he was one of the few ‘traders’ in Taldrim who were respected. This had a lot to do with the fact that he never said anything bad about anybody, never questioned the inevitable settling of scores that went on in his tavern, together with the contacts he had who ensured that there was always a plentiful supply of rotgut alcohol on offer.

      Warden piled the glasses together, just as filthy as before, but with the dirt more spread out, and glanced around the almost empty tavern. It was turning out to be a quiet night, and that was a good thing. He’d decided to do without one of the two guards on the door, and in that way save himself a few copper coins. Warden had a sixth sense for trouble and relied on two guards who were former soldiers who’d fled from the defence of the Oath Line, who were paid on a nightly basis. And just in case the night got seriously interesting, two crossbows and a metal club under the bar.

      It was then that the door, weathered by the passage of time and warped by damp, opened with a creak and in walked a warrior who was so tall he had to bend his head as he stepped over the threshold. Warden stared at him fixedly. His arms were starting to itch, a sure sign that the night was about to get complicated. The leaden silence that spread among the few patrons was confirmation.

      The giant drew himself up to his full height and looked around him. The customers developed a sudden overwhelming interest in their drinks, the marks on the dirty wooden tables, or in the most desperate of cases the rotting roof of the tavern. Even though they may have lacked Warden’s sixth sense for sniffing out trouble, they all knew that an exchange of glances with the new arrival would be a bad idea.

      When the warrior had finished his slow survey of the room, he strode over to the bar. Warden had seen deserters and traitors from pretty much all over Endarth, and it didn’t take him long to realise that his visitor was a barbarian from Tirkah, and those were none too popular in the little that was left of Tyrennor. Warden was of the opinion that, although the mercenaries who guarded his door were deserters (well, traitors to their homeland in effect), they’d been born there, and had at some point defended the country’s flag. Albeit briefly. But the savage Tirkahans had in the past forged alliances with the neighbouring country of Damardas and had mercilessly raided the outposts on the frontiers of Tyrennor. And, well, that was worse than being a traitor. To his way of thinking they were old enemies who had been against them all his life. So, calling on a combination of patriotic fervour and sound business sense, the tavern keeper concluded that the gold would be much better off in his own pockets than in those of such miscreants, and twisted his mouth into a half smile as the menacing barbarian approached.

      The warrior leaned arms like twin tree trunks heavily on the bar. He was dressed in typical Tirkahan garb: almost no armour, with the exception of a shoulder guard of toughened leather covered in fangs over one shoulder, and forearm guards also made of leather. Warden knew a bit about Tirkahan culture, and he knew that they hardly used any metal in their armour, apart from the enormous breastplate patterned with wolves that this one was wearing. Aside from this, his torso was bare, criss-crossed with battle scars and tribal tattoos, and he wore high leather boots with laces.

      The Tirkahan leaned over the bar and examined the dirty shelves loaded with drinks behind Warden. The tavern keeper studied his face. Both sides of his head were shaved and covered in tattoos, his dark brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and his beard was unkempt.

      Almost immediately the warrior pointed to a small, square bottle that stood at the back of one of the shelves. Warden looked at it for a moment and smiled inwardly. He rescued the bottle from the shelf and grabbed a wooden tankard – he was sure that a metal one wouldn’t be able to take such powerful liquor. It was of Tirkahan origin, and he wasn’t too sure how it had come to be sitting in his tavern. Nobody drank it, it could easily knock a man out cold. Warden had made good money betting against brave drinkers, who weren’t exactly the sharpest pencils in the box.

      As he pulled the cork out of the bottle, the powerful smell hit him, the alcohol fumes making him blink. He pulled himself together and poured, half-filling the tankard and taking care not to spill a single drop.

      “Khan wants a full tankard,” said the barbarian in a hoarse voice.

      Warden looked up and met the Tirkahan’s eyes. They were different colours, he noticed.

      “Drinks have to be paid for in advance,” he said, holding the other’s gaze with effort. He heard murmurs among the other customers in the tavern. The rabble always enjoyed a good show, above all when it was free, promised violence, and they weren’t caught up in it themselves.

      The barbarian smiled, which was the same as baring his teeth. Warden saw how the fangs stood out and shuddered. The warrior reached a hand into the leather bag that hung at his waist and slammed a silver coin down on the bar, making the glasses shake and a good few of the fascinated onlookers wince. Warden looked down at his fist guard, which ended in two long bone tusks, covered in dried blood. He swallowed hard but took the coin, and it disappeared into the labyrinth of pockets hidden beneath his apron. He immediately filled the tankard right up to the brim.

      “When you’re done there’s another round for you. You’ve already paid for it.”

      The warrior stared at him for a few moments, weighing up the information. Seeming to have understood, he jerked his head slightly in acknowledgment, and turned to sit himself down at a table.

      Then Warden saw his back. And how he was carrying a piece of metal that was too big, too rough, and too vicious looking to be called a sword. It was more like a slab of metal gripped by a two-handed hilt, topped with a silver wolf’s head. His arms started itching with a vengeance.

      The warrior reached a corner table, and calmly sat down. Warden, without averting his gaze, rescued the silver coin from his pocket and studied it with care. The barbarian was almost definitely a mercenary and had come to Tyrennor on a mission of some kind. Warden knew about the landowners who had been fighting to extend their domains for years, turning the whole of this area into a land of death and opportunity. The tavern keeper cautiously bit down on the coin and decided that the barbarian didn’t know much about the value of money either, because the coin was worth enough to buy more than twenty bottles of liquor. At that moment something gave inside him. Warden had always been a businessman and was capable of squeezing benefit for himself from pretty much any situation. But he wasn’t completely heartless. After thinking about it for a bit, he grabbed the bottle and went over to the warrior. He saw that the tankard was already almost empty, and the Tirkahan was still upright, which said a lot about his resistance to this particular poison. And he had that familiar look, he was staring fixedly at some imaginary point on the table about ten centimetres above the tankard.

      Warden understood people well, especially when they were fighting their own demons.

      “It’s on the house,” he said, leaving the bottle on the table.

      The warrior looked at him, and Warden saw a trace of sadness in his eyes. Afterwards, the barbarian contemplated the bottle on the table and was quiet for a few moments, as if trying to digest the new information. Eventually he fixed his gaze on Warden and tapped his own chest as if in a gesture of thanks. The tavern keeper nodded. To his own surprise, he’d taken a liking to the Tirkahan.

      Back behind the bar, he carried on with his work. Gradually the murmur of the drinkers’ voices returned, and against all the odds everything was carrying on as it usually did on an average night.

      That is until all hell broke out in Taldrim.

      Warden noticed right away that something was very wrong. There seemed to be a lot more movement within the settlement, and he could hear what appeared to be shouts and the clash of weapons. And he wasn’t the only one. He felt the atmosphere change as his customers, hardened warriors, reached for their weapons. This is ridiculous, he reasoned. There was no reason for anyone to have the slightest interest in raiding this poor hovel. And then another thought came into his head: there was nobody to defend it either. He spat on the floor, grabbed the crossbow and loaded it, his movements precise.

      The door suddenly exploded inwards, and three men crashed into the tavern. Their bodies moved in violent spasms, as if each limb had a will of its own. Even in the semi darkness Warden could see their distorted features, yellow skin and mad eyes. And he heard their war cry.

      As if on springs the first two brandished their swords and indiscriminately set about the customers in the tavern, who were already prepared for the onslaught. The third fired his crossbow, and the arrow pierced Warden’s chest. Almost the same instant that the bolt from the tavern keeper’s crossbow made his head explode.

      Warden crashed into the shelves behind him, falling to his knees. The weapon slid out of his hands as the strength drained out of him. He heard the battle raging on the other side of the bar. Many of the bottles of alcohol behind him had been smashed to pieces, and their contents spilled everywhere, mixing with his blood. In the end, this was a night that was anything but quiet and peaceful.

      “Bastards,” he muttered.

      With an effort, he grasped a small candle that had fallen to the floor, bringing the flame close to the pool of rotgut alcohol that surrounded him. His eyes misted over, but he was smiling. Maybe it was a good time to change his line of business. Today he would close the tavern.

      The candle flame flickered and caught. And it was all over for him.

***

      Khan chose the farthest table in the stinking tavern and sat with his back to the wall; that way he had a good view of the whole room. The creed of the Clan of the Shadow of the Wolf dictated that it was the duty of every wolf to cover his brothers’ backs. This was why during his exile Khan very often felt a greater sense of insecurity in places like this one than he did on the battlefield.

      He shook his head, and delicately picked up the tankard. The first swig of rankah was just as he remembered, rough and feral. It stung his mouth, burned his throat, and felt like knives in his chest as he swallowed. But the hardest thing was the memories the stuff brought back to him; memories of drinking and celebrating with his comrades in arms by the warmth of the fire. All that had given his life meaning, all that he’d lost so many years ago.

      Khan wasn’t one to brood. He knew that Kah, God Father of War, had tested him in many ways, but Khan had always overcome every challenge on the battlefield. When it came to matters other than combat though, it all got a lot more complicated, too complicated for him to comprehend. Even so, Khan didn’t consider himself an ignorant man, rather a survivor who knew that his fate was sealed. However, as much as he made sure to stay on the alert, knowing that the clans of Tirkah weren’t exactly popular in these areas, he also knew that it was here in these bad lands that he would fall, far from the place that he’d once called home. There was no honour left for him anywhere, just melancholy wanderings until his final combat.

      He sipped the rankah carefully. The painful memories called up by the alcohol flashed before him. He remembered his brother fighting alongside him on so many campaigns, so many victories. The teachings of Belegor, his Master, who pushed him to be the clan’s next Chosen One. And Thea…

      He always remembered Thea, he thought of her every single day. The rakah showed no mercy, drawing him back to the darkest of days, the beginning of all the misfortunes that had fallen on him, the day when Thea, his wife, had been murdered by the Elder of the clan of the Shadow of the Wolf. That terrible day when Khan had lost all hope, had become possessed by Ilos, the lunatic brother of the Father of War, when he had killed so very many members of his own clan. He closed his eyes, seeing once again that final moment, when he had clutched the Elder’s head in his bloody hands after finishing off his guard of honour. He heard once more the wretched murderer’s screams, his stuttering pleas for mercy, while Khan’s claws held fast, crushing his skull. Very slowly. Until the face was nothing but a bloody pulp.

      His heart was beating fast, and his hands tightened around the tankard. Khan had no regrets. He never had. His fingers slowly traced the scars on his shoulder, the place where the tattoo had been that denoted his membership of the Clan of the Shadow of the Wolf. These painful moments of longing were becoming less frequent now, and this time it was the rankah that was largely to blame. He missed Thea… he missed her bright eyes, her tenderness and her patience when she was explaining things to him. With her by his side he’d felt at ease, as she’d always taken care of the difficult things. That was why he preferred to be wrapped up in a campaign, lashing out and killing with his sword like the wild beast lacking in head, heart or honour that he really was.

      The thud of the bottle being put down on the table was unexpected. He looked up and saw the tavern keeper, who was watching him with a half-smile on his face.

      “It’s on the house,” he said, leaving him the rankah.

      Khan didn’t know how he should behave. He was fairly sure that he was bad with “money”, but it didn’t matter to him at all, just as he didn’t care when he overheard other mercenaries laughing at him behind his back when they realised that there were certain rituals he didn’t understand. He stared at the bottle for a few moments, and then at the tavern keeper. He wasn’t asking for more money, or at least it didn’t seem like he was. He hesitated, finally striking his chest with his fist, by his heart. It was the greatest gesture of thanks that he knew.

      The tavern keeper nodded, and left. Khan stared at the bottle, and it didn’t take him long to refill his tankard right up to the brim. He had to be sure not to get things wrong, the tavern keeper wasn’t his battle brother. He would never again belong to any pack. His future only held battles to be fought in which he belonged to neither side, until Kah called him to his table. That was where he knew he would be forgiven by the Father of War and would be permitted to see Thea again.

      He smiled. It wouldn’t be a bad end.

      And that’s when he realised. They were under attack.

      He took a big gulp from his tankard, and instinctively reached for his sword just as the door exploded inwards. Three warriors entered. When he saw them, Khan froze, paralysed by an ancestral fear. Something within him was shouting, speaking of dark omens. Ancient stories came into his mind, tales of a great alliance between the clans, and betrayal by ‘the possessed’ among the battle brothers themselves. But Khan had forgotten the details of those stories of the olden days, when the elves of Edannan were the honourable enemies of the Tirkahans.

      The aggressors attacked the warriors closest to them with their swords, and the third let fly an arrow.

      Khan let out a battle cry to shake himself free of the chains of his own fear. He sprang forward like an animal, allowing his weight to help him brandish his sword above his head. The violent swing of his massive sword sliced through one of the roof beams before striking an enemy with a brutal downward thrust. The creature twisted and tried to block the incoming attack with his own sword, but Khan ran him through.

      The archer had been brought down, and the other combatant was losing ground to the warriors in the tavern. Khan turned swiftly. Through the hole in the door, he saw more of the possessed approaching, around a dozen of them. He smiled and gave thanks to Kah for having liberated him from the fight against those painful memories. The Father of War had decided that tonight there would be enemies to destroy. And Khan would honour the gift.

      He took a deep breath and lashed out with his sword, spattering the floor with the blood of his latest victim. He gave in to the rage that burned like fire inside him, pure and overwhelming. He yelled at the top of his lungs and the hilt of his massive sword creaked in his hands. As he threw himself at his enemies, a tongue of flame spread though the tavern, but although Khan the felt sudden blast of heat, he didn’t stop.

      The enemies were shouting their own war cries, but they were drowned out by Khan’s. Losing some of their swagger, they hesitated as the berserker flung himself at them, screaming like a madman and brandishing the enormous sword. A fatal mistake, as when they tried to react, it was too late.

      Khan let rip, decapitating one of them without pausing. He jumped to one side, avoiding a sword thrust, and slammed the handle of his weapon into the face of the other enemy who fell back, stunned. Feet firmly planted on the ground, he swung his sword in a circular movement that cut two of the enemy in half.

      The other six tried to surround him, but Khan still didn’t stop. He threw himself at the one who was closest, knocked him to the ground with a savage kick, and then finished the job with his sword. He turned, and two attackers fell on him at the same time. Defending himself with his sword he blocked the blows and pushed them away with a snarl. A third appeared from behind, and although Khan tried to dodge the thrust, the sword slashed his arm. The pain was satisfyingly real, and it fed his rage. Throwing a rapid punch with his right hand, the long tusks on his fist guard sliced right through the other’s head. He pulled back quickly and the enemy sank to the ground and lay there, inert.

      Then a volley of black arrows surprised him, falling like rain. He saw a handful of archers a few metres away, already getting ready to loose a second volley. In all his vast experience he had never seen allied troops being fired upon. The hooded figure that commanded them lifted an arm, ordering them to reload.

      He saw that only one of the possessed was left standing, and was wounded. He sprang forward and ran it through with his sword. The second batch of arrows struck hard, but Khan used the body of his enemy to protect himself.

      That was when he realised that his wounds were worse than he had imagined. Several of the arrows were embedded in his flesh, and they were giving off a strange greenish vapour that was making his blood bubble. The fury of the moment, fuelled by the rankah, had left him insensitive to pain. Khan knew that he could take a lot in the heat of battle, but there was something wrong about these arrows. His energy, his vitality, and his life itself was draining from his body.

      He struggled to his feet and noticed that he was short of breath. He wrenched the sword from his victim, drove it into the ground, and leaned heavily on the blade that had served him so well, now covered with blood. The air burned in his lungs. He glared at the archers with loathing and tried to utter a battle cry. Or a final curse. But nothing escaped his lips but a trickle of blood.

      Just before the third volley of arrows fell on him.

***

      Ayla swiftly cast her spell, knowing that this rough warrior was one of the Chosen Ones. But as she was completing the ritual, several thoughts crossed her mind. Why had they attacked the settlement? There were no spoils to be had, and the attackers would eventually be defeated. Ayla sensed that there was something wrong here, but she didn’t know what it was. What gave her the most food for thought was the strange, hooded figure whose magical essence was unlike anything she had ever known.

      Damn it, she was missing too much information. Ayla didn’t even know what year it was, and she didn’t know anything about the balance of power all over Endarth. The only thing she really knew was that she had another Chosen One to carry out the final pact. She swore under her breath.

      And as the city disappeared around her and she found herself back in her log cabin, a soul gem started to glow with a faint red light.

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