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0.8. – The north passage

      The skies were changing. Bits of buildings, places from Endarth, all appeared and then melted away like ghosts, in a constantly changing rhythm. Sometimes quickly, at others exasperatingly slowly, but they were always landmark places, places where the blood had flowed, or great battles were meant to take place.

      Ayla was leaning against the door frame, observing the sky. She felt calm and at peace, in control of the situation. All around her, just a few metres away, she could see a gathering of dozens of banshees, they were running around like a swarm of cockroaches, hissing malevolently. But none of them ventured into the twenty-metre-wide circle marked out on the ground.

      Four of the bravest had given it a go, and now their bodies were the smouldering reminder of the consequences of defying the last of the Interventors.

      “If you were all to attack at the same time, I suppose you’d manage to defeat me in the end. But I swear to you that I’ll blast the first half of you to kingdom come before you even have time to scream. So, which of you feel like sacrificing yourselves on behalf of the rest?”

      The nightmares hissed, fixing her with their red eyes, baring teeth and claws. But they didn’t advance. Ayla sighed sulkily. There was nothing for it but to wait. The next call would be the final one, she’d collect the last of the souls, and then she’d have to travel to the Pavilion of Heroes to suffuse them with the energy stored over the course of a century, to give them one last chance. That was where they’d make the Pact to set foot in Endarth once again… in exchange for a promise she couldn’t fulfil.

      Ayla felt a mixture of hatred and anguish. After all her work, after bringing back the seven chosen by her Guide who was able to foresee the future… she would have to lie to them. And the worst thing would be knowing all the time that this was the case.

      What was the price of the greater good? Seven lives, eight, including her own? Those she brought back couldn’t complain, they’d died because of their own lack of skill. And they certainly couldn’t blame anything on her, for Ayla Swanlake had sacrificed herself, had brought her own existence in Endarth to an end. The sacrifice that was required from them was not so great, that much was clear.

      She shook her head. Deep down she knew that things were not meant to be this way. But there was no choice. The circumstances could not change.
She looked up. The banshees looked as if they were up to something, and were fidgeting about anxiously. Some of them looked at her and then turned away sniggering in the distance. Ayla gritted her teeth. They were making a mistake, this wasn’t the best time to challenge her.

      Nonetheless, they parted, revealing the result of their efforts: a giant, almost three metres tall, who with its every step made the ground of the Interstices shake. And it was making its way towards her, dragging a mace with huge balls of steel attached to it.

      “Well. You’ve managed to divert one from its path to Endarth, and give it physical form on this side. You have my congratulations.”

      The explosion was violent, and when the smoke had cleared a dozen of the banshees were dead, together with the behemoth.

      “Ah. No. You don’t deserve my congratulations. Luckily for you, we won’t see each other on the other side. Until the end of the mission, I’ll be no more than a shadow. And at the moment we accomplish it, should we be successful… I will commit my final sin. But I swear to you here and now that I will annihilate any one of you who gets in my way.”

      As she spoke, the sky began to darken. The Interventor allowed herself to be swept away, knowing that as long as the call lasted, nobody could access the log cabin that had been her prison for so long.

      The prison from which, in the end, she would be freed.

***

      Vyktor splashed some water on the embers of the fire, which hissed, sending up a little cloud of smoke. He gathered up his small tent and packed it neatly away in his rucksack. Afterwards, he hung the various kitchen utensils on their hooks and secured them with the fasteners he’d designed himself. Running an expert eye over his camp, he nodded with satisfaction. He had everything. He walked over to what looked like a pile of rocks next to a tree, and tapped them with his hand.

      The dwarf waited for a few moments, but nothing happened. He gave the rocks a harder whack, this time with the toe of a reinforced boot.

      “Come on Eztrok! The sun’s just come up. We need to get moving if we want to reach Byzardus tomorrow night,” he said, addressing the pile of rocks.

      He shifted his weight restlessly from one foot to the other. Suddenly he stopped, as if he’d just remembered something, and rummaging in his pockets eventually pulled out a wooden pipe. Filling the bowl right to the top, he took a small contraption out of his rucksack, clicking at it until the tobacco caught.

      In the meantime, little by little the rocks began to move. Eztrok was an ook, an anthropomorphic race related to rock, but one that looked more like a gorilla than a human being. The first thing that stood out was their size: they could easily reach a height of two metres, although the ooks hunched over when they moved; the long, powerful arms reaching down from broad shoulders were completely covered in stone, ending in sharp gems that glowed green.

      The whole of the ook creaked loudly as he roused himself. When he was ready, he looked at his friend and smiled. Vyktor no longer found it surprising, but it had taken a bit of getting used to. The stonefaces, as the dwarves frequently called the ooks, didn’t tend to have much use for facial expressions. But Eztrok had learned from the dwarves, and always smiled when he saw Vyktor. It was an unexpected gesture from a hulk of his size, even more so given how innocent and childlike he looked. He always responded in the same way, ignoring the fact that the dwarves had enslaved and abused his race for centuries… and continued to do so.

      The ook gestured with his hand.

      “Gratitude.”

      Vyktor nodded nervously as the ook went through his routine. The stonefaces gave thanks every morning for the fact that they hadn’t been reclaimed by the rock while they were asleep. Vyktor was generally grateful when he didn’t wake up with a colossal hangover that made him want to blow his own brains out.

      “Come on, big guy. It’s going to be a long day today,” said Vyktor, as his staff tapped against the path, the only one that came down from the Silver Falls.

      The ook blinked lazily. With another gesture at the dwarf’s back (Friend), he started to move deceptively slowly and with surprising grace for a creature of his size. In less than a minute, Eztrok had to slow down as he’d caught up with Vyktor.

      “We’ll drop by old Willins’ farms, and exchange the grease he needs for his oven for food. Then we’ll have enough to last us another couple of days. After that we can pay the trading posts at Avalon Bend a visit. There we’ll be able to get a good quantity of sulphur for those vials of bear repellent. We can spend the night there, then make a detour to the abandoned coal cave. There you’ll have a good sack to carry, be warned. Then we’ll be less than a day away from Byzardus. When we get there, we’ll sleep at the Horseshoe Inn as they’ll let me have the basement lab. We’ll go to the Lherry Sisters’ shop and buy some potassium nitrate. And after that we’ll make about thirty of those long explosive cartridges. We’ll use three of them to pay the inn, and we’ll sell the rest at the Weapons Market to the engineer dwarves. With the money…”

      As Vyktor chattered away, Eztrok nodded slowly and looked up at the sky, clear and blue this morning. He gazed at the flocks of birds, studying the patterns they made as they flew. Then he turned his attention to bright colours of those that were twittering away energetically in the treetops, and smiled again.

      The hours slipped peacefully by. It was a pleasantly warm day, the trees created a dappled shade, and the path wound gently downhill. After a quick mid-morning snack, they walked on for a good while and reached the Willins family’s farms late in the afternoon.

      Vyktor hadn’t stopped talking for a single minute. He’d given his opinion on such disparate matters as trade throughout Endarth, how the quality of the food differed depending on which part of Tyrennor you happened to be visiting, the always humid climate of Atlius, and even the strength of the liquor in Quibar, the capital of Damardas. And now he was still chattering away, doing sums out loud, running through the things he needed to get done over the next few days.

      Arriving at a bend in the road, the dwarf and the ook turned off the main road onto a dirt track that led to the Willins’ house. A little later, a low white structure appeared before them in the distance, surrounded by barns and stables scattered over a broad meadow. At that moment a rocky hand landed on Vyktor’s shoulder, and he stopped in his tracks.

      “What are you doing Eztrok?”

      “Danger

      The ook looked over the dwarf’s head. Vyktor felt a shiver run down his spine. He shook off the ook’s hand (Eztrok had loosened his rocky grip), and drew his weapon. It was named “Barker”, a piece of dwarf craftsmanship: a long tube made from a special kind of metal alloy and cast in the forges of Atlius, inlaid with polished wood and with a complex mechanism at one end. Taking a piece of metal from his side pocket, he opened a leather bag hanging at his waist. It took him just a moment to fill the six cylinders with the potent black powder. The device slid into the weapon with a click, and he introduced six armour piercing shells through a slot in the side. He removed the safety catches and cocked the hammers. Barker was ready for action.

      “Something’s not right Eztrok, there’s nobody in the fields, and there aren’t even any cattle grazing. Everything’s too quiet, too dead…I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

      That was when they heard the scream, visceral, terrified, human. And terminal.

      Vyktor hesitated, but Eztrok kept on moving forwards, with the economy of movement so typical of the ooks. The dwarf had to work hard to keep up with his companion.

      “Stop, you idiot! We don’t know what’s out there! Might be bandits. Might be lots of bandits.”

      “Help.”

      “We don’t have to help anybody!” howled Vyktor. “We’re independent, my friend. We’re a little family of two oddballs. We avoid trouble. Nobody takes any notice of us,” Vyktor hesitated for a moment. “Well, if they do it’s just because you’re an ook, and you don’t see to many of those around here. But apart from that we don’t have any problems. Because we don’t look for them.”

      “Help.”

      “This isn’t what we agreed! Remember?” I do the thinking and you do the heavy lifting. We can’t get –”

      The words died on the dwarf’s lips when two creatures emerged from the nearest barn and threw themselves on himself and Eztrok.

      Eztrok swung an arm over Vyktor’s head, hitting the first of the enemies hard. Bones shattered with a dry crack, and the creature was flung backwards like a broken doll. The second one lunged forward, brandishing an axe above its head. A shot rang out and it fell backwards with a hole the size of a fist in its chest.

      “What the hell are these things?” said Vyktor, addressing the question to the world in general, as Barker sat smoking in his hands. “Hey! Eztrok! Wait for me!”

      Viktor raced after his friend, and as he rounded the corner of the barn a black bolt whizzed past his head, missing him by inches. Dropping to the ground he spotted half a dozen more of the monstrosities. He squeezed Barker’s secondary trigger, firing again. This time the shot was less powerful but more scattered, spraying the creatures with shrapnel and raising a shower of mud. It might not have been deadly, but it was enough, because Eztrok hadn’t stopped and was now charging ahead, a furious hulk of stone, the black bolts bouncing off him. The creatures shrieked, but those long arms ending in solid rock were now in action, creating havoc. The blows thundered down relentlessly, the noise drowning out the screams of the victims who were crushed mercilessly.

      Vyktor spotted another one of the beasts a few metres away, heading for the boundary of the farm.

      “Eztrok! Over there, that one’s getting away!”

      The ook sunk his hand into the ground, and ripped out large chunk of rock with no apparent effort. Stepping forward and drawing himself up to his full height, he hurled it at the creature.

      The rock made a whooshing sound as it flew through the air, slamming into the beast so hard that it fell to the ground instantly in a shower of mud. Vyktor adjusted his weapon, brought it firmly to his shoulder, and took a deep breath. This shot would use up two cartridges of black powder, but it would reach further. He braced his feet on the ground.

      Stunned, the creature got up and tried to run again. But Vyktor fired. The monster was thrown forward and fell to the ground dead, its chest a bloody pulp.

      The two friends stood there, stock still but on the alert. Gradually, the din of the battle receded, and Vyktor could once again hear something over the beating of his own heart; the gentle breeze swaying the grass, the deep silence of the farms.

      He calmly walked over to the side of the barn, and stared bitterly at the carnage. These powerful creatures with their dark, slimy skins had completely wiped out this small human settlement. The dwarf quickly averted his eyes. The body of the last victim was still bleeding, this person had been sacrificed to lure them to this place.

      “Sadness.” The ook made a sign in the air, and looked at his companion. There was no smile this time.

     “I know my friend. I know. Let’s get out of here Eztrok. Let’s just get away.”

      Before he turned, Vyktor saw the symbols the ook had formed in the air. More elaborate than usual.

      “Return to rock.”

      Vyktor sighed heavily. He didn’t want to do it. Didn’t want to bury them, because among all these scattered body parts he was terrified of finding Willins’ head. The old man had driven a hard bargain, but afterwards he always gave them honey and wine for the road. Or his wife’s. She’d been a tiny little woman who’d baked them those aniseed biscuits that he’d hated at first but later became addicted to. Vyktor remembered that there had been children at the settlement too. He couldn’t bear it. He just couldn’t take it anymore; he wasn’t the dwarf he’d once been.

      The old Vyktor had been ruthless. Yes, he’d killed the dwarves who’d been his competitors whenever he’d been able to. And that had made him the most powerful and dangerous slaver in the whole of Atlius. He hadn’t thought twice about sacrificing dozens of ooks to make sure that his own were the strongest for sale at the slave market. How many years had passed since those times? Not enough to get over it.

      Until that stupid rockface had saved him from the death that he so richly deserved. Saved him, but hadn’t been able to save his wife and son. Vyktor had hated him for not letting him die, for making him go on living after losing everything he’d ever loved. But then the ook had smiled at him. And suddenly and unexpectedly something inside Vyktor had broken.

      “Rest.”

      Vyktor nodded at his friend. He watched as the ook clawed at the earth with his hands, digging the first of the many pits that would be needed.

      The dwarf sat on a tree stump, with his back to the scene. He was cleaning and reloading Barker. Once he’d finished and checked several times that the receptacles were correctly sealed, he took out his pipe, lit it, and took several deep puffs.

      “This is bad Eztrok. It’s really bad,” he said, exhaling a dense cloud of smoke.

      But he didn’t turn to see his companion’s reply, he kept staring at the horizon, waiting, while the ook went on with his sad task.

      After a while, he sensed his friend standing next to him. He looked up, and Eztrok smiled.

      “Return to rock.”

      “Yes. You were right. You did what had to be done.”

      “Road.”

      “No, Eztrok. we’re not going to continue on our way. I’ve been thinking. I’ve no idea what these creatures are, so I think the smart thing to do is to get to the walled city of Byzardus as quickly as we can.”

      “Mountains.”

      “I don’t want to go back to Atlius either.” Vyktor sighed. “I’ve made up my mind Eztrok, we’ll go to Byzardus and work there for a while. After all this…” The dwarf fell silent. It took him a minute to find the words. “We’ll head south, Eztrok. It’s time we thought about ending our journey.”

      “Family.”

      “Yes Eztrok,” said Vyktor, sitting up. “It’s time we tried to find your family. For you to be with them. I promised you, and I’ll keep that promise.”

      The ook’s hands were moving fast now.

      “Family. Vyktor.

      The dwarf looked at his friend, and felt his eyes filling with tears. But it was impossible. He’d heard all about the migration of the ooks, and their cunning plan to escape from the hands of the dwarves. And he was determined to take Eztrok there, to a place in the southern mountains, where he could live as a true ook. Nothing would make any sense if it didn’t end that way. Vyktor had given up everything to atone for his cruelty, his sins, but all that would be worthless unless he freed his companion. The thought of separation was almost like a physical pain, but that was his penance. He had to lose everything.

      Without a word, Vyktor stood up and started walking. They wouldn’t reach the abandoned coal mine until well after dark. And they’d avoid both human and dwarf settlements to reduce the likelihood of running into more of those creatures.

      Before they arrived at the forest, they saw it. A hulking dark figure, covered in twigs and mud, the skull of a deer on its head, and two glowing green eyes, oozing malice. The two friends stopped dead.

      “This isn’t finished yet, Eztrok,” said Vyktor, almost without moving his lips. His hands moving like lightening, he reloaded Barker once again; the final click as everything slide into place sounded as loud as a thunderclap.

      “Enemies.”

      Vyktor scanned the forest. The darkness around the tree trunks started to take solid shape, and some twenty animals appeared. They were more like dogs than wolves, but it was hard to work out what they were. Drooling uncontrollably, their bodies full of festering wounds, they had an unhinged look about them. Their movements were spasmodic and aggressive.

      Vyktor felt an ice-cold terror grip the pit of his stomach. But at the same time, it gave him a clear perspective of the situation. He came to a decision. And that made all his fear evaporate.

      “Eztrok,” he murmured. “I want you to get away from here, run as fast as you can. I’ll hold them back.”

      “No.”

      Then the beast lord stood motionless as if waiting to see how they would react. The dogs were tense, growling; but they didn’t attack. More were steadily arriving as if they were growing out of the darkness.

      “Eztrok, listen to me!” Vyktor’s tone was pleading now, “I need you to run and, and… ask for help.”

      “Lying.”

      “Of course it’s a lie, you sand head!” shouted Vyktor. Their enemies jumped, startled. “I need you to survive! You must go home! You have to be a free ook! If not, then it’s all been for nothing. Do you understand?”

      “Eztrok.”

      “What?”

      “Eztrok.” He pointed to his own face. “Decision.”

      For a second it felt to Vyktor as if the ground was moving beneath his feet as the revelation struck him. As the pieces all fell into place, he looked up at the sky. And laughed. He laughed so hard that even the beast lord began to shift about uncomfortably.

      Vyktor hadn’t changed at all. He’d carried on enslaving an ook. He’d carried on taking the decisions for him. He’d been an utter hypocrite over these last few years, and simply hadn’t realised it. Eztrok wasn’t his penance. Eztrok was Eztrok. And Eztrok would be the one to choose where to go, where to fight, or where to die. As a free ook.

     The dwarf let his elegant staff fall to the ground, cocked his weapon, and gritted his teeth.

     “Alright my friend. If that’s what you want, come with me into hell.”

      Eztrok raised his fists, which shone as the rock changed shape, edges sharpening, glittering like diamonds. His hands were speaking again.

      “Family.”

      Vyktor smiled. Eztrok smiled.

      “Of course. A small family of two oddballs.”

      They turned. The dogs had multiplied and were starting to bark. Sensing they were facing two adversaries who weren’t in the least frightened of them, their instincts were signaling danger. But the beast lord stepped into the middle of the pack, raising powerful arms that ended in claws of bone.

      Eztrok took a step forward and roared. Deep and visceral, the sound echoed around the clearing. Terrifying. A death sentence.

      Vyktor had heard it once before, many years back. Even so, it made a powerful impression. But this time the situation was different. He took a handful of grenades out from the concealed pockets in his belt, pulled out the pins and hurled them at the beasts.

      They bounced among the ranks of bewildered dogs, and a second later exploded with a burst of flame and shrapnel. Howls and whimpers filled the air.

      The two friends charged. Towards certain death.

***

      Ayla watched the fight, knowing that there was only one way it could end. She was sorry that the two friends would have to be separated, but that was what had to happen. A few final screams and gasps, and she knew the combat was over.

      She closed her eyes, concentrating hard. Her hands moved swiftly, capturing the soul of the ook, but just as she was about to place it in the gem, she felt a hand grab her wrist.

      Ayla hadn’t felt any contact – apart from the odd fight with a banshee – for a hundred years. She opened her eyes wide in shock, unable to stop herself from screaming. That was when she saw the figure of the ook, translucent, floating in front of her, and holding on fast to her wrist.

      “This is impossible! You can’t be here!”

     Behind her the soul gem began to glow a brownish colour, as the figure of the ook became ever more transparent.

      “What do you want? What are you doing?”

      But the ook just looked at her and smiled. He held out his free hand and opened it carefully, as if it held the most precious object in the universe. Ayla was surprised to see something glowing orange.

      “It can’t be… how did you manage it? How was it possible for you?”

      But the ook didn’t reply, it was disappearing fast. It just stared at her.

      “I can’t. He’s not a Chosen One. There isn’t a receptacle for him.”

      The ook looked at her and smiled, letting go of her wrist. He took a step towards the marble altar, grabbing his own soul gem which was now almost complete, and showed it to the Interventor.

      Ayla stepped back.

      “I’ve never done this. It might break the stone. Your souls might intertwine. I might lose you, and then I’d have failed in the eyes of my Master.”

      The ook fell to his knees, practically invisible now, and raised both hands. The orange glow of the soul of his friend, and his own stone. All the while his eyes, deep and calm, fixed her with their intense gaze. And somehow, Ayla simply knew that it was right to try. She swore under her breath.

      “Alright. Alright!”

      She opened her arms wide and harnessed her energy. Not as she had done up until that moment, even in combat, but in a different all-encompassing way, feeling in every pore of her skin the mana and aether flowing through her whole body.

      “Thank you.”

      Ayla felt the word, rather than actually hearing it. And then she cried out as all her magic was consumed at once: the energy enveloped her in a blinding white light for a split second, and the gem fell to the floor. Ayla was breathing hard, and it took her an effort of will not to collapse.

      Bending over, she picked up the last soul gem. Studying it carefully, she saw that it was all brown. She sighed with disappointment. But still, at least she’d tried.

      All of a sudden, she saw a small orange glow, an independent orange glow, floating inside it. And she smiled.

      “We did it, son of a bitch, we did it!”

      And then, hearing how the banshees had latched onto her weakness and were starting to invade the log cabin, she cast her final spell. The one that would free her from her prison and carry her a step closer to Endarth.

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