The dead and dying surrounded him as Prince Inarus stalked the battlefield beneath a setting sun. Ruddy light gleamed on shattered helms, broken lances and pools of congealing gore. Carrion birds descended shrieking like ghouls upon mounds of the slain, whilst beneath the blood-soaked ground other less wholesome creatures stirred and crawled out to feast upon what remained of two mighty armies.
“Balthus!” Inarus barked without breaking stride.
Balthus emerged from the ranks of Inarus’ warriors, his head bare, his hair and whiskers grey from age and the dust of battle. He wore a long, richly embroidered coat fouled to the knee with dark blood — human and otherwise. Beneath the coat, mail rings glittered. “Here, my prince,” the man said and saluted. “You have led us through chaos and slaughter and appear unharmed. You cannot know how greatly it heartens us to see it so.” Murmurs and grunts of approbation arose from men too bone-weary from fighting to cheer.
Inarus acknowledged neither salute nor praise as his bleak stare roved the carnage. “Find timber for pyres and build them fast! Burn our fallen foes, for my thrice-cursed brother’s allies might not stay dead for long. When this is done, find Corpio and send him to me.”
With that Inarus turned away and hiked up a low rise where the corpses were fewer and where his standard — an eagle in gold on a scarlet field — hung from a pole. A groom produced a stool and Inarus sat, his back bent, elbows upon his armoured knees. Above him the tattered banner stirred, listless now that the howling, sorcerous winds of battle had died.
Inarus was surprised to see Balthus had followed him. “Didn’t you hear me?” he asked.
“Indeed Sire,” Balthus replied. “I will relay your orders, just as you command. But what of our allies? They will hasten for their homelands soon. A brief meeting with the commanders is all I ask–”
“No.” Inarus kneaded his forehead with raw, bleeding knuckles. “Not now Balthus.”
“But Sire — you must. It would be a terrible slight to do otherwise. The Lords of the Marches will want to laud your victory and they deserve our gratitude at the very least. I can have Radabrecht of Sudheim and the other generals here within the hour. I urge you not to affront them. Your father spent his life forging alliances with the cities of Novgorand. Let us not forsake them just as they repay our faith.”
Inarus made no reply. His eyes were black mirrors as his fingers traced an old scar that striped his cheek.
The men nearby began to mutter. Lowering his voice Balthus said: “Sire, I beg you to reconsider. You have won a glorious victory — ”
“Victory?” Inarus rounded upon him. “We’ve won a battle, but this is not victory! Where’s my brother, steward? Where is the traitor? Only when his head hangs from my saddle horn will I hear talk of victory.”
Balthus glared but said nothing. He was oath-bound to the Lords of Altigor — the Eagle City perched high in the mountains that men called The Serpent’s Teeth. He served Inarus as he had served the late king Viterbo, Inarus’ father, though it was rumoured not so willingly.
Inarus watched as Heliope the Seeress — his sister — approached. Above a jewelled and gilded mask her headdress was an outlandish fan of feather and sculpted bone. She was clothed in robes of shifting hues and in one pale hand she gripped the Staff of Luminos.
“Leave us,” Heliope told Balthus.
“As you wish.” The steward inclined his head and withdrew.
“Brother, you must do as Balthus advises,” Heliope said. “It is proper. I, of all people, know what gnaws your mind and your heart — but Agenor is beaten. He will not trouble us or our lands again.”
“You know this?” Inarus stared keenly at his sister. For an instant he saw her as she had been during the battle, on a dais high above the slaughter, attended by naked gibbering acolytes. With her staff lifted and wreathed in lambent witchfire, Heliope had cast bolt after bolt of dazzling energy into the dark vortex the enemy wove about him.
“Agenor has gone into the hills,” Heliope insisted. “His power is broken. Those allies that he drew from distant, nightmare lands have cause to doubt his strength. They pose a greater danger to him now than you or I could contrive.” She placed a jewelled hand upon Inarus’ arm. “Come, let us go home. The war is ended and there’s other work to be done now. Look not back and the memories will fade.”
But Inarus shook his head, replacing his hand upon his ruined face. “Some things cannot be forgotten,” he muttered. “A child’s memories are few but they burn brightly in the darkness.”
“Do not speak to me of darkness!” Heliope hissed.
The prince looked away. He was scarcely more than a boy when Agenor put out his sister’s eyes before turning hands still dripping with her blood upon their father. Raging, Inarus had tried to intervene but Agenor was a grown man and he gave his younger brother the contemptuous backhanded slash that had opened his face, marking him shamefully from that day forward. Inarus could still see the gleaming dagger. He could still hear Agenor’s laughter as he drove it again and again into their father’s body before he strode laughing from the hall.
Inarus had run and hidden. How could a child do otherwise? But he had grown to manhood and the time for hiding was over. Eleven long years of war had brought him, today, within sword’s reach of the traitor. He would have his vengeance — whatever the price.
Cold fires grew within as his mind turned to the battle earlier and how Agenor had eluded death. Inarus remembered the moment he crested a ridge and first laid eyes on his brother’s forces in the valley below.
* * *
The enemy filled the valley from wall to wall, the sound and stench of them making Inarus recoil — for not only men and natural beasts had Agenor mustered to destroy his upstart sibling but other, fouler creatures as well. Dragomen there were and trolls and other creatures that stamped and bellowed beneath banners emblazoned with dreadful symbols and hung with grisly tokens. Above the host a dark cloud seethed — swollen with sorcerous power and veined with leprous fire.
Inarus’ infantry advanced through the eastern pass, presenting a narrow front that his brother’s greater numbers surely thought to envelop and overwhelm. At the same time the Altigorean cavalry — mounted on the shaggy, fleet-footed Chamiram so at home in those broken hills — fell upon Agenor’s forces from almost sheer slopes. The Altigoreans had the initiative, but Agenor had dreadful allies and dark magic.
As the armies engaged, the terror and ferocity of the dragomen quickly began to take its toll. Inarus’ men were clawed, hacked and ripped asunder — torn limb from limb as the creatures of nightmare rampaged among them. All the while amid the blood and terror, necromantic winds shrieked, spewing death in myriad unseen forms. Without Heliope’s counter-spells Inarus’ army would have been quickly overcome, for his men — their blood frozen, their sight blasted and their minds giving way — began to succumb.
But just then Inarus had heard the peal of trumpets above the din and the ground shook with the rumble of hooves. From a cloud of dust at the valley’s western end, four thousand knights of Novgorand thundered into the enemy’s rear, the horsemen a glittering wedge that clove the squalling dragomen like a steel-prowed ship forging through a darkly boiling sea.
That action marked the tide’s turning, but still Agenor escaped him! As Inarus’ army rallied with new heart and new strength in their killing arms, the winds died, the doom-laden atmosphere lifted, and Agenor was gone — passing like night before the implacable face of dawn.
* * *
Inarus lurched to his feet. “Forget if you can,” he told Heliope, fastening a cloak of resplendent eagle feathers over his mailed shoulders, “but do not try to stop me! I’ll find our treacherous brother and finish this, once and for all.”
“Then I will come with you,” Heliope said. “Agenor’s power is broken — but a wounded snake still has a venomous bite.” Her mask’s greenstone eyes glittered strangely in the fading light. “There is something in the hills from which he draws strength; the witch-winds whisper of it. They tell of some remnant of the ancients he has discovered and used to enslave the dragomen, wraiths, and lycans who swarmed to his banner. Now the might of his foul army lies broken and festering in this valley . . . but Agenor did not flee the battle alone. I saw the liche lord Krallichaan and his captains take to the sky after him on dark steeds suddenly sprouting great wings. You will have need of me again Inarus, should you come upon our brother in such company.”
The prince stiffened. He was about to object when Balthus returned.
“Sire, Lady,” Balthus began, “this is madness! Night is falling and this region is uncharted. We saw the sorcerer grow wings and fly. How can we hope to close upon him? We would all follow a phantom to our doom; tell me you would not have it so.”
But Inarus merely called for a mount. He slid a bronze signet ring from his finger and thrust it into the steward’s hand.
“You were my father’s most trusted advisor,” Inarus said in a hollow voice. “Henceforth you are appointed High Chancellor. Act in my stead until my return. Meet with Radabrecht and the others. Thank them on my behalf — and on behalf of the kingdom of Altigor. You have my full authority to treat with our allies as you see fit and as they deserve for the part that each has played. As for me,” the prince said, vaulting into the saddle of the Chamiram the grooms held steady for him, “fear not! I do not ride alone to my doom.” Inarus gestured to Heliope who, encumbered by staff, mask and headdress climbed more cautiously onto her own animal. “And Balthus: where is Corpio?”
A column of riders drew rein upon the littered ground below. Their leader urged his mount to the rise to join Inarus, Heliope, and Balthus beneath the eagle standard. Inarus smiled for the first time in many days. The newcomer was a typical Altigorean — broad and darkly bearded beneath his spiked and fur-trimmed helm. He wore leather armour, heavily padded and reinforced with steel. A sabre hilt jutted above each hulking shoulder. Around his waist was tied a sash, scarlet like the banner above. Each of the forty or so riders with him wore an identical sash — the mark of the prince’s Honour Guard.
“There’s more work to be done, Corpio,” Inarus said, leaning forward over his elaborately carved pommel. “I look to my brother’s trail and to whatever bolthole it leads. He will need more than wings to escape me twice this day. So Captain, are you with me?”
A fierce shout arose from the assembled warriors and echoed from the stony ground, momentarily drowning the cries of the wounded and the dying. Reaching behind him Corpio drew a lance from its sheath and tossed it spinning to the prince.
“Ha!” Inarus caught it and wound the thong about his wrist. He turned to Heliope and asked, “Will you shed some light upon our road, sister?” Then he spurred his snorting animal forward.
The Seeress followed him, raising her staff. Light erupted from its jewelled tip, cosseting the riders in a rich, golden glow.
“For revenge or ruin,” Inarus cried leading his Honour Guard out, “we ride!”
* * *
They followed a herder’s path up the valley’s southern side. Night closed around the small force and the going was slow as they picked their way by the light of Heliope’s staff. Upon reaching the valley’s rim they found they no longer needed it for such was the brilliance of the upland sky. Turning east, Inarus saw the snow-capped summits of the Blue Glass Mountains glittering like frosted jewels in the far distance.
Inarus rode in silence. Around him he saw a stark and naked land untamed by the hands of men. Altigor lay many leagues behind them and his father the old king with his teams of dwarf engineers had never reached this far south. His father had been named Viterbo the Bridge Builder, not only for his statecraft but for many wondrous works spanning the chasms and gorges of their mountain home. It was Viterbo’s roads and bridges that allowed trade to flow from the south into the cities of the civilised world. Altigor had grown rich upon such trade: rich from taxes levied upon the merchantmen with their trains of goods; rich also from its heightened influence with the great cities of the north.
Inarus felt a fierce surge of pride as he reflected on his father’s achievements. But like the sharp frost after a clear upland night, pain followed — as it always had. Viterbo was dead and the bonds he’d forged with Novgorand’s southerly provinces had been tested to destruction by the enmity that burned between his sons. Inarus knew that the glory days of Viterbo’s reign were gone. He knew it in his heart even as he saw it daily in Balthus’ weary eyes. Trade had waned, and brigands swaggered unchallenged upon the crumbling, weed-grown highways of his homeland. Eleven years after they laid the murdered king upon his pyre, Inarus’ war with Agenor had beggared the kingdom — and still it raged.
So be it, Inarus thought, brooding. The hatred he nursed within him had hardened his heart until he dreamed only of revenge.
* * *
“Wait!” Heliope pulled up her mount.
Inarus did the same, halting the column of riders that strung out behind them upon the ridge.
“What do you see?” Inarus asked.
“Down there,” the Seeress replied, indicating the deep gorge upon their right — a great tract of darkness into which a narrow trackway led. “I sense Agenor and his allies. I feel their malice waiting, gathering, growing in strength . . .”
Inarus eyed the path. “How far?”
“At the ravine’s bottom the path turns east and ends at a sheer wall. The stars form a circle above. Agenor awaits us there.”
Inarus nodded grimly and motioned to Corpio. “It seems the traitor turns at bay,” he announced, shaking his lance. “At last he recognises our resolve. He knows he can never escape us! Perhaps something within him remembers what it is to be a man and goads him to stand and fight — who can say? All I know is that I have thirsted for this moment throughout eleven weary, wasted years. Now our time has come; let’s go in together and finish this.”
“Lead on, Prince,” said Corpio. Quick as striking serpents the captain drew twin sabres hissing from their sheaths and a murderous light awoke beneath his steel and fur clad brow.
But Inarus felt Heliope’s hand upon his arm once more. “Don’t be so hasty brother. Agenor is not alone. Do not forget who stands with him. Krallichaan is a powerful necromancer and a terrible foe. His aura can freeze a man to the marrow, his gaze is terror and the kiss of his knife — eternal damnation! But worse, there is ancient magic here. The Unceasing Winds are very strong and they tear at me as though I stand at the very edge of the world. We must go carefully now. Agenor knows we are coming.”
“Good!” Inarus said and spat. “I’ve had more than my fill of cat and mouse.” He stared into the black maw of the canyon and turned his thoughts inward, drawing strength from the greater darkness he found there. Cold fury steeled his spine and his heart as he spoke again to his companions through gritted teeth. “Come.”
Inarus led his men off the ridge down the narrow track with Corpio at his shoulder. Heliope had to kick her Chamiram to keep pace with them, an eerie light blossoming again from the tip of her staff as once more darkness threatened to swallow them.
* * *
The riders moved down the pitted bone of the mountain’s face. The shuffle of the animals’ hooves and the jingle of the men’s harness echoed from the rocks. Inarus, in the midst of his most trusted warriors, nonetheless felt small and exposed.
After what seemed like half the night they arrived at the slope’s foot. Under Heliope’s direction and following her light like moths through a cave, they turned — moving now in a double column with the slope upon their left. The track was wider here but they had to pick their way among huge misshapen boulders and looming outcrops.
Despite these obstructions Inarus picked up the pace. Without warning from his witch-sighted sister he sensed that Agenor was close, and he struggled to contain the hatred, anger and fear that warred within him. Inarus glanced over at Corpio who rode at his side. The captain was grim-faced and taciturn as ever. With javelins strapped across his broad back and a naked blade in each scarred fist, he guided his mount with his knees. In the light of Heliope’s staff, his features radiated the fierce fatalism of his kind. One look at him was enough to reassure the young prince.
But then pandemonium erupted.
“We’re under attack!” Inarus heard someone’s shout from the rear of the column along with the clash of steel and the cries of injured men.
“Column halt!” Corpio bellowed, wheeling his Chamiram about. “Keep together!”
“Captain, what . . .” Inarus began but — beset by dark shapes that leaped from the cover of the rocks — immediately he was fighting for his life.
He thrust with his lance, piercing one of the things, but it kept coming. He fought to keep hold of the weapon as a wave of putrescence struck him. Suddenly Inarus was staring into a pair of eyes, luminous with hatred. Champing, fleshless jaws gaped for his throat; Inarus released the lance and the thing fell writhing to the earth. Gagging, he ripped out his sabre and hacked at the creatures that swarmed around his stirrups. His Chamiram squealed and reared, a barbed spear protruding from its breast. Inarus leaped clear as it pitched sideways. He landed on his feet, whirling his blade in whistling arcs. As the foul creatures recoiled from the glittering steel he drew a breath.
The column was a struggling knot surrounded on all sides. Antique iron thudded into flesh; blood sprayed black in the moonlight; men and animals went down beneath wildly hacking, emaciated limbs — and now Inarus could see the attackers for what they were: darting, skeletal warriors in rusted mail and mildewed leather. Murderous and silent they struck from the shadows of the boulders with spears, heavy scimitars and crescent-bladed axes.
Inarus parried a spear-thrust and drove at the attacker with his steel-clad shoulder, hearing bone snap and give way. He wheeled, catching a descending wrist on his sword’s edge. He slashed at the horror as it fell back, but it came at him again, graveyard-breath hissing from the empty cage of its chest. Cursing, Inarus sheathed his sabre and seized a fallen scimitar. He hefted the heavier weapon with satisfaction then smashed the crude, single-edged blade into the skeleton’s face. Bone fragments flew as the head shattered.
“Agenor!” Inarus shouted as the bone-warrior crumpled. “Come out and face me, damn you!” But the sorcerer did not emerge — only a seemingly endless scourge of the undead.
“He’s not here!” Heliope’s voice shrilled above the melee. The Seeress had also lost her mount but she had immured herself behind a halo of shimmering blue light that cowed the enemy and repulsed them.
Howling his frustration, Inarus smashed a grinning attacker’s breastbone with an over-arm stroke and crushed the skull of a grounded foe with his iron-shod heel.
“Go, Sire!” came a shout from close by. Inarus wheeled round to find Corpio — sword in one hand, axe in the other — bludgeoning a path to his side. “Go now!” bellowed the giant warrior without pausing in his work. “Find the traitor. We can hold them here . . .”
Inarus nodded. Corpio’s words were like a sweet song above the din of battle and the roar of blood in his ears.
“Sister!” Inarus bawled, forging toward her. He decapitated a foe, shattering another’s pelvis with the backswing. Heliope met him amid the carnage. The glowing shield cast by the Staff of Luminos enveloped him and together they strode through the ranks of skeleton men who shrank before them. As they rounded a great stone buttress the battle faded out of sight and out of mind behind them.
* * *
Black cliffs rose to enclose a circle of softly glowing sky far above their heads. A shaft of moonlight pierced downward, silvering the darkness. Across the valley floor a flight of stone steps climbed to a giant arching doorway carved from the cliff’s unyielding stone as if by unimaginable hands in an age long forgotten. An impenetrable mist seethed beyond the doorway, but upon its threshold a group of figures remonstrated. In their midst stood one marked by a shock of iron-grey hair streaked with white. His stance was crooked but defiant.
“Agenor,” Inarus said under his breath like a curse or a fearful prayer. He quickly told Heliope what he saw.
“The Lizard Gate,” she muttered. “I had thought it just a story. A myth. But here it is — a powerful relic from the Old World’s pre-human past — a door in the very fabric of the cosmos. I shudder to think what realms our brother has entered by crossing its enchanted threshold. And now we know how Agenor summoned Krallichaan from the dead city of Drackow.” Heliope paused and pointed to the menacing shapes that pressed Agenor round. “Indeed,” she continued, “the liche lord is here. I can see him with my witch sight.
Inarus peered more closely at the figures gathered with Agenor beneath the arch; they were tall and shadowy and sheathed in bronze that was green with age. One of them wore a jagged crown. Krallichaan, the undead lord loomed above Agenor and his eyes were like points of yellow fire, blazing with hellish anger.
“It seems our beloved brother displeases his new masters,” Inarus said. “But wait! What’s happening. . .”
As Inarus watched, Krallichaan thrust a sword into Agenor’s hand before turning abruptly and vanishing into the mists of the giant portal, followed by his minions.
Inarus heard Heliope begin to speak a warning, but he was already in motion, striding toward the gate, his black gaze fixed upon Agenor while one hand touched the furrow of thickened, twisted skin that marred his cheek. In his other hand, the heavy cleaver glinted. Heliope caught up with him and Luminos’ blue, protective aura enfolded them once more.
A bestial shape leaped at them, snarling. Heliope’s shield pulsed, increasing in brightness and intensity and the dragoman fell back, howling pitifully as its flesh peeled and blackened. Others menaced from the beyond the glowing barrier, but none wished to share the fate of the first and so Inarus and his sister reached the foot of the stair unmolested.
The steps were massive, as if designed for other than human feet; the stone was worn to glass-like smoothness from the traffic of countless centuries. Laboriously Inarus and Heliope climbed to come face to face with him that waited before the Lizard Gate.
“Sister and brother of mine!” Agenor greeted them. He was clad in black battle plate of elaborate design, hung with chains and studded with emblems of doom. A great fur cloak unfurled from spiked shoulder plates and his lank, iron-grey hair hung down. His voice issued again like dry bones cracking on a fire. “You have travelled far for our reunion and your journey has been costly. Perhaps I am flattered — for surely you did not hope to find me fearful.”
Agenor laughed and Inarus’ mind was drawn inexorably down an echoing tunnel to a darkened stairwell where a terrified boy crouched, weeping in his own blood. Inarus dragged himself back to the present. Many times over the years he had thought — had dreamed — of the stinging words he would unleash upon Agenor before exacting vengeance upon him. But now the moment had come and Inarus could only stare, shaken and stupefied by what his brother had become.
Agenor had grown. He appeared swollen in some unnatural, unnameable way. And yet despite his pride and ponderous armour he also seemed withered somehow. The beard that had once been glossy and black was dead white and it sprouted like lichen from sunken cheeks. Agenor’s skin was like yellowed parchment stretched too tight over the bones beneath. Only his eyes betrayed the life and vigour that still lurked within him and they blazed like coals. One hand was hidden beneath his cloak, his shoulder hunched vulture-like above it, lending him a crooked mien. Agenor’s visible hand appeared sinewy and strong as it wrapped the intricately carved hilt of Krallichaan’s huge, black sword.
Words finally came to Inarus. “We set out to find a traitor and visit punishment upon him,” he said. “Now, the traitor stands before us and we will see justice done.”
But Agenor’s livid gaze passed over Inarus to light instead upon Heliope. “Night against Noon!” he hissed. “The Seeress faces the Grey Master of Illusion at last. I took your eyes, sister, and yet by groping in the dark you have still managed to find me. This time I’ll have your mind — and your soul!” Agenor stretched out the arm that was hidden, revealing a crippled, withered thing ending in talons of bone. Again his laughter reverberated from the rocks.
Inarus looked to his sister. Luminos’ pulsing blue shield was gone. Heliope gripped the staff in both hands and from behind her mask came the sound of fevered chanting.
At last Inarus’ deeply rooted hatred found vent and he threw himself upon his brother. “Traitor! Murderer! Fiend!” he screamed while crashing his cleaver down upon Agenor’s armoured breast, the blade shivering with the impact.
Agenor staggered, raising his sword to parry the next furious blow.
“Back, Inarus!” Heliope shouted. “Stand aside!”
Above them clouds blotted out the moon, and the valley plunged into darkness. Inarus felt Agenor’s up-swinging sword strike his with bone-jarring force. Though Inarus withstood that blow, he was hurled from his feet as dazzling lightning bolts clove the darkness, tearing into Agenor with a noise like cliffs split asunder. Agenor bellowed and dropped his sword. Inarus watched him crawl to the gate and vanish into the mist. Heliope screamed and threw her arms wide. Then her outline shivered into silhouette as a final bolt burst right on top of her.
* * *
The moon re-emerged and its light was a spiralling column of dust as, painfully, Inarus got to his feet. The Lizard Gate’s lintel loomed — its alien glyphs seeming to writhe eerily. Within the gateway shadows moved and strange lights danced.
Inarus crossed to where Heliope lay limp and apparently lifeless. He groaned aloud but checked himself as he heard a faint, rasping breath behind her gleaming mask. “Sister . . .” Inarus touched the mask but snatched back his hand. The metal was burning hot. Wisps of vapour arose along with a pungent odour. “Heliope, what happened?”
Heliope replied in a weak, broken voice. “The spell went awry,” she whispered. “Agenor escapes us . . . again. I misjudged the magic. And I burned because of it.”
“But you are strong; you will recover.”
“No, brother.” Her mask trembled and a hiss of agony issued through the slit that served for a mouth. “Revenge or ruin, you said. For myself I knew they were one and the same . . . but I knew you could not find Agenor without my help. Now, the power leaves me and moves on. Hadred, God of the Dead, spreads for me the shroud of forgetfulness–”
“No!” Inarus forced the word through his teeth as if the strength of his desire alone was enough to deny Heliope’s words. “You will live! Let me take this wretched thing from you.” Again Inarus laid his hands upon the mask, this time ignoring the impulse to recoil from the scorching metal. Grimacing, he tried to lift it from her. Heliope screamed as fused and blistered skin sought to separate from the mask’s inner surfaces.
Inarus realised the futility of his efforts to save her. “First father — now you,” he said and sobbed, sinking down beside her. “I’ve lost everything! Agenor has taken everything from me.” But then a new and terrible realisation gnawed at him. “Wait,” Inarus said, “was it not I who brought this doom upon you? After all, it was I who insisted we pursue Agenor after the battle.”
“Do not punish yourself,” said Heliope through her obvious suffering. “This was never just about you. In the end I . . . I knew it would be a battle of adepts. Agenor was too strong for you brother, there is no shame in that. You chose the way of the warrior instead of the path of the mage. It suits your nature better . . . unlike our brother who was ever greedy and jealous of all knowledge.” Heliope paused and took a shuddering breath. “Of course, my path was chosen for me. In losing my eyes, by necessity I learned a different way to see. And discovered a gift for other sorceries along the way. The power to stop Agenor was mine all along, and so the failure is my own. My late efforts have proven to be in vain.”
Inarus jumped to his feet, hatred rekindled in his heart and upon his face. “Nothing will be in vain if Agenor dies. It’s not finished! I will follow him beyond the Lizard Gate.”
“No, Inarus,” she said. “Return home and take the throne that is your birthright. My sight reaches where living flesh cannot and I know what lies beyond the gate . . . I promise you Agenor will not return.”
“What do you mean, ‘where living flesh cannot’?”
“Just that, brother. Agenor and Krallichaan have used the gate to cross over to the land of the dead. They have placed a charm upon it such that only the undead and adepts of the dark arts like Agenor might use it. The way is barred to you, Inarus . . . you must put all thought of it from your mind! Think instead of Altigor and your people — they have suffered enough these long years. Take the path that leads homeward; this is what Balthus would counsel, if he were here.” Heliope lapsed into another spasm of pain before continuing, “Moreover, it is what father would wish: the path of life and honour.”
Inarus turned away from her. “You speak of an unfamiliar road. If I were to live my life over I would walk death’s path again and again in order to be finally rid of Agenor!”
With that Inarus snatched up the black blade that Agenor had let fall. Deftly he reversed it, wedging its pommel against a boulder. He raised his cuirass and brought the sword’s point up to the soft place below his breastbone.
“Inarus no!” Heliope moaned. “You don’t know what you’re doing — Krallichaan’s blade is cursed! It brings not death but undying torment . . .”
“But will such a death allow me to pass through the gate?”
“You don’t understand! Even the Wells of Kharazash might not heal such a wound, nor restore you in any way. You must not do this, brother. Agenor is vanquished — I swear to you! Do not suffer his fate or worse–”
“Again I ask: will I pass?” Inarus said, oblivious to her pain and heedless of the tears that coursed down his own ruined face.
“Yes!” Heliope screamed. “Damn you . . .” she said, speaking her last.
Inarus echoed her final scream, throwing his weight forward until the black blade stood out between his shoulders. The biting agony faded quickly and was replaced by bone-deep numbness that spread rapidly throughout his body. Staggering, Inarus dragged the blade free and cast the thing away. He lifted his hand to the great gash below his breastbone, bemused to find how little blood flowed from there. With the briefest glance at his sister’s body — her slender hands still stretched toward him — Inarus turned toward the Lizard Gate and lurched across the threshold.
* * *
Mist swirled and darkness descended upon the wings of a fearsome wind. Above Inarus, constellations wheeled as strange stars winked into life. One such grew upon the horizon, swelling and becoming ruddy. The coldly rushing darkness was banished as though by a blast from a furnace and Inarus stood on a high place of bare, windswept stone.
A blood red sun lowered. Empty desert stretched, broken here and there by buttes and barren hills. Shadowed in the shimmering distance, the sharp-edged geometry of pyramids and temple towers reared high into an ochre sky.
“Brother!” A croaking voice behind Inarus made him turn.
The carven facade of a pillared temple loomed — dwarfing the black arch of the gate. In front of the temple’s portico a burning wheel had been erected. Upon it and all but consumed by flames writhed a pitiful figure.
Inarus mounted the steps that led to the wheel. At the top air billowed from intense heat, and parts of his leather garb began to curl while his feathered cloak burned away. But here, stripped of his armour and bound upon the wheel, was Agenor.
Peering through the weirdly flickering radiance, Inarus stared at what remained of his brother. Whoever left him there had first flayed the skin from his body and broken his limbs before setting a sorcerous fire in his flesh.
“So. Here is . . . victory. Brother,” Agenor managed to utter despite his torment. “Is it . . . sweet?” He let loose the maniacal laughter that had haunted Inarus since his childhood.
Inarus drew his sword. He lingered over the moment, watching his brother’s glistening flesh bubble and blacken. “Not sweet,” Inarus replied at length. “But it is mine!” He drove the blade down, silencing Agenor’s laughter forever and only withdrawing the weapon when its leather-bound grip began to smoulder and smoke beneath his clenched fist. As it came free the sword glowed crimson but Inarus did not feel the heat. Nor did he feel the arid wind of the Dead Lands tugging at him as he descended the stair that led him back to the gate.
* * *
Balthus and Corpio were waiting as Inarus returned through the Lizard Gate. Both men eyed the prince solemnly.
“So, what now Inarus?” Balthus — the High Chancellor — asked from where he sat his mount. “You carry a heavy curse and I will not see it visited upon the people of the Eagle City. Where will you go?”
“I don’t know,” Inarus said. “I have thought only of death — either Agenor’s or my own. Now I am lost. Heliope tried to warn me, but I would not listen! She died cursing me. She spoke of life and honour . . .” For an instant he felt his wound like a cold draught passing through him, and he remembered something else Heliope had said. ”She also spoke of The Wells of Kharazash, but it means nothing to me.”
“Kharaz lies far to the east,” said Balthus. “Across the Sea of Mists and beyond the Kingdoms of Orr. Perhaps you should seek answers there.” Balthus raised his gloved hand in farewell and Inarus could not stifle a pang of regret as he noticed the signet of the Lords of Altigor upon Balthus’ finger.
“Here Sire!” Corpio hailed, then as of old tossed a lance to Inarus, even if his voice lacked the same gusto.
Inarus caught the lance and wound its thong about his wrist. The sun’s first feeble rays fell upon his scarred face as he turned away. “From west to east,” he murmured, “from sunset to sunrise — an unfamiliar road.”
An avid reader of Sci-Fi and fantasy since childhood, Alex has always enjoyed writers of the early 20th century in particular. Alex completed his first novel in 2006 and since then has written numerous short stories — all with dark fantasy themes. Two of his recent works were short-listed in international competitions run by a well known UK publisher. Alex’s novella THE CRIMSON TOWER has been accepted by a US publisher and is scheduled for release in December 09. Alex is 41 and married, with two young children.