Even in the middle of summer, it was still cool in the mountains. The snows had melted and tender shoots of grass and flowers poked through between the rocks and boulders. Small mammals peered at them from afar before scurrying back into their burrows.
It was only a small contingent that Nolan brought with him. His strongest fighters and most skilled climbers. Broga had assured him that Dead Hunters loyal in their duty to the realm would be waiting at the borderlands in preparation to march with them.
Morena smiled at him with encouragement as they hiked the steep mountain trail cut by sheep. The healing scars marred her face, pinching and pulling the skin around her eyes. Yet, she wore them well, with a grace and dignity that only true warriors could achieve.
Sometimes, he caught her looking at him with a soft glance. However, when he would ask her what she saw, she would only smile and shake her head. “Not yet.” she would say.
They had been rounding the edge of one of the smaller peaks, using a narrow ledge barely two feet wide. Below them a deep chasm lay open, ready to swallow anything that fell into its gaping maw. And then the land lay sprawled out before them.
“Beautiful.” Morena whispered, her face aglow as she took in the view.
The clouds had parted to reveal the land below. Green valley stretched for miles, dotted with grazing herds of sheep, deer, and elk. Along the horizon arced a gray line – the Frozen Mountains.
“We’ll rappel down and cut across the valley. Some flat ground will do us good.” Nolan said.
“Then let’s go.” Morena said cheerfully.
It was early evening when they completed their descent. The waning light of the sun played over the hand and foot holds, casting shadow. An advanced group of Dead Hunters met them at the base of the cliff, the camp had already been struck.
Nolan sank down into the grass of the valley, a welcome change to sleeping on stone. At the edge of the firelight, Broga, Morena, and the Dead Hunters spoke quietly. It had shaken them to learn of Jono’s betrayal, and they were much more careful of who they kept council with.
Every so long a furtive glance was sent his way. He was the heir to the throne of the Mountain clans, with no heir of his own. Nolan was sure that they considered preventing him from going any further. It would be the prudent thing to do.
“You will not keep me.” he said to the group. “So don’t try to stop me.” He then turned away and shut his eyes.
A dark chuckle followed after them, sending a chill up Erinael’s spine. Suddenly Idriss stopped, pushing Erinael behind him as he drew his sword. “Young love.” a voice hissed. It circled them, Idriss keeping himself between it and Erinael. “You’ve grown, boy.” it continued.
Erinael pressed herself to Idriss’ back. She knew that voice. What had once been a loving and authoritative voice was now filled with menace. “What have they done to him?” she whispered.
“It’s an animated corpse, nothing more.” Idriss said. “Do not listen,” When she moved to peer around him, he pushed her back. “And do not look.”
Laughter came from behind them, a throaty chuckle. Idriss glanced over his shoulder, but still kept his blade toward the corpse, as a dark shape lit to the ground.
Erinael turned to keep it in sight, surprised to find yet another of the Dragon-Kin. This one of blackest scales and menacing glance. He smiled toothily, sharp teeth glinting and bright compared to the rest of him. Erinael recognized him from the Histories. It was Zuran, the Dark One. Bringer of the Darkness and Death.
But he was supposed to be dead.
“Your mother is well, I trust?” His look was snide as he continued to watch them, sizing them up. When Idriss did not respond, Zuran continued. “Did you know that you travel with greatness, girl? See how the forest retreats from him.”
It was then that Erinael looked at the ground where they stood. What had once been poisoned grass, was wilting and turning the yellow of dry grass. And the longer they stood, the wider the circle became.
“The son of the Life Binder himself.” Zuran crooned. “Not living up to that legacy, are you boy?”
“What is he talking about?” Erinael demanded.
“Not now.” Idriss hissed. His eyes had not left the animated corpse of the Lord-King.
“Oh, he hasn’t told you?” Zuran threw his head back in laughter. “That is wondrous!”
“Shut up, you traitor!” Idriss bellowed, lunging for the Dragon-man with Kalhanna raised high.
Zuran neatly leapt clear. “Calm yourself, young one.” he chided. “Remember who the true enemy is.”
Momentarily forgotten, the corpse fixed its milky gaze on Erinael. With a gibbered shriek it rushed for her, moving with a speed not thought possible for decaying flesh. Hands grasped for her, the bones had broken through the putrefying flesh, and the jaws snapped in anticipation of her blood, her life-force.
Erinael dove, seizing a stick from the ground. Wielding it in both hands like a club, she swung at the thing that had used to be her father. The swing was a bit wide, but still struck one of its arms. Emitting a hoarse cry born of frustration more than pain, it grabbed for the stick.
Eyes wide and hyper-attentive from fear, Erinael yelped as the creature took hold of the end. She tried to jerk and twist it from its grasp, but it was solid. Driven by its own desires, the creature stupidly held on while reaching for her with its other hand. All Erinael need to do was hold on.
“Could I get some help?” her voice quavered.
“You are the enemy!” Idriss snarled, doubling back with his sword, Zuran evading again. “You set the Darkness free!”
He set after Zuran with a vengeance then, quick lunges and chopping strokes. Zuran successfully evaded them all, even getting in some blows of his own by exploiting Idriss’ injuries. “Mind your mate.” he purred, tail slamming into Idriss’ belly to send him reeling.
Setting her feet, Erinael spun on her heels, forcing the creature into movement around her. It gibbered and hissed in protest at the attempt to off-balance it, still lacking the sense to let go as it continued to reach for her. “Idriss!” she snapped while wondering what could have prevented any of the Dead Hunters from having followed them to begin with.
Idriss was breathing hard from exertion caused by pain and from having been laid up for so long. He placed a hand to his stomach, still feeling the empathic pain caused by the soul bond that he shared with his mother. He cast about, looking for Zuran, who had since melted back into the forest.
He took the end of the stick from Erinael and then began to back the former Lord-King toward a tree. The thing gibbered and if questioning this course of action, but still held on. “It is a very basic instinct that drives them. The need to absorb life-force energy.”
Pinning the creature to the tree with the stick, Idriss then hewed the head from the body. Erinael was unable to watch as he then speared the head with Kalhanna, silencing the creature permanently.
Erinael could not bear to turn her head to look at the remains, even after he had turned to her. Taking her chin in his hand, he turned her face this way and that, looking for marks. “It didn’t touch you? Bite you?” When she shook her head, he slid his hand to the back of her neck and pulled her to his side. “We need to leave.” he said.
Despite the black ichor smeared on the length of the blade, Kalhanna glowed with a hungry light. Just as Idriss jaw had turned sharp and more angular, and his eyes had become a fierce gold.
His ferocity scared her, and not in the thrilling sort of way. It was a terror on parr of that caused by the necromancer creatures. A fear of something powerful and beyond her control.
With a possessiveness, he took her by the arm and began to lead her back toward camp. Zuran and his creature had led them on a circuitous route away from the others, and now they had to find their way back. Before Zuran could raise an army to come for them.
She had difficulty drawing a full breath, and her heart thundered so loud. She had trouble reconciling the man that she knew with the creature that he was capable of becoming. It was just too much.
She stumbled, her knees going weak. Idriss continued to lead her along, dragging her almost. When she couldn’t keep up, Idriss moved to pick her up to carry her. As he went to sling her up over his shoulder, a dark shadow rushed down upon them with a roar.