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The Ravenglass Fragment V: Harbinger

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Copyright © 2017 by Anthony Pryor

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

Cover art © 2016 by Bryan Syme

Check out more of Bryan Syme’s awesome art here.

Special thanks to Lee Moyer for his valuable assistance with typography, graphics and layout. See more stuff from Lee here.

Author’s Preface

Welcome back to The Ravenglass Fragment, and what was initially intended to be the final installment — shows how much I know. As the observant reader will note, I have set myself up with way too many plot threads to resolve in a single episode, so to what I’m sure is everyone’s overwhelming delight, Harbinger is now the penultimate installment, and our epic is to conclude with The God Machine, sometime next month. This will mean commissioning another amazing cover from Bryan Syme of course, so that pretty much means that everybody wins.

Anyway, I hope all the folks that have followed our saga for the past few months are having a good time, and my renewed thanks for your continued support. This process is teaching me a great deal about the ins and outs of modern self-publishing and self-promotion, and it’s been great to have everyone along for the ride. It’s been a blast so far and I hope I’m not overwhelming everyone too much with all the pseudo-Sumerian and -Finnish words (I’ll try to be better about that in future).

And as I always say, come by my website http://www.anthonypryor.com and sign up for my semi-regular newsletter or drop me a note at [email protected] or [email protected]!

 

Anthony Pryor

Portland, OR

Previously

Alex St. John is the Shepherd, who stands guard over our reality in the face of demons, sorcerers and extradimensional terrors of all kinds. When the mysterious Ravenglass Fragment is stolen, he and his companions — all-around nerd Loren Hodges, sorceress and goddess’ avatar Annabelle Lee Moore and psychic warrior Mia Jordan — discover that the thief is the radical neo-fascist author Gordon P. Chandler, and that he has made common cause with the evil ghul, a race of cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers. With his allies, artist Marla Drake and her boyfriend, punk rocker Panzerboy, Chandler has discovered how to travel to other realities, and set himself up as the ruler of the fantasy land known as Valtakimmäinen. There, he seeks to gather all the broken fragments of what he calls the “God Machine,” which he believes will grant him absolute arcane power.

Loren, Anna and boy reporter Rob Maher pursue Marla and Panzerboy to Valtakimmäinen, but are separated. Loren and Rob make contact with a group of rebels called the Kindred, who believe that the newcomers are prophesized heroes. Meanwhile, Alex and Mia try to rescue Dr. Naomi Johar, a scientist with information about the Ravenglass fragment, whom Chandler has kidnapped. They too are separated, as Mia escapes with Johar and Tom Cottman, another of Chandler’s allies who has turned against him, while Alex follows Chandler to Valtakimmäinen. Still in our reality, Mia and Tom try to figure out what to do next, and are relieved to encounter the last of Alex’s allies, the immortal Norse warrior and former demon Arngrim, who once tried to destroy the Ravenglass Fragment.

I: Athramar

Alex

Trans-dimensional travel is a huge pain in the ass. Take it from me — I’ve done it enough. This particular transition was a little less troublesome than most, but it was still no picnic… A brief stabbing moment of absolute cold, a burst of light and rough ground rising up to meet me. I slammed hard, bounced, landed and bounced again, unsure of what I’d encounter once I got back on my feet.

It was familiar, but still strangely different. I was in a grassy clearing — or at least its moral equivalent, for the stuff under my boots was a pale purplish color rather than green — surrounded on all sides by towering trees. Most of those were a familiar shade of green, but there was a bewildering variety of exotic shapes — sickle-shaped lunates, perfectly round orbiculars and others. A few trees sprouted colorful flowers, and a flight of bright-feathered birds erupted from nearby, disturbed by the sound I’d made when falling. And probably by my loud swearing, too.

No, Chandler wasn’t there… No way I could be that lucky. We’d gone through the same portal but we’d obviously arrived at different places, or he’d arrived well before me and made his escape.

I rose unsteadily, trying to focus in the green-white sunlight that filtered down through the strange leaves. The sword was still in my hand, and my mind still pulsed with near-adrenal urgency. It was how the damned thing communicated with me, and over the years I’d deluded myself into thinking I could control it. But I hadn’t, not this time. As my foe escaped through a glowing green interdimensional portal I had blundered after him, drawn on by the force of the weapon I carried, leaving my friends…

Oh, Jesus.

The full impact of what I’d done hit me with almost overwhelming force. I’d left Mia and Johar in the ghul tunnels. And Tom Cottman too — sure the guy was a repellent little creep, but I’d told him I’d protect him and now…

Oh, Jesus.

Mia was capable… I knew that. In fact, if she’d had the sword instead of me I suspected she’d have made a far more efficient — or at least less merciful — Shepherd than I was. She moved like a cheetah, she handled her kukri like a Wuxia character and she had absolutely no tolerance for bullshit, demons, monsters or rednecks. I tried to calm down. If anyone could have gotten Cottman and Johar out of that place it was her. She’d fought those horrors for years and knew how they thought.

It didn’t help much. For years now I’d lived in terror that I’d get another friend killed. I’d already failed others, from my first girlfriend all the way up to the fight with Onatochee when I’d lost my best friend, my mentor, my lover and their friends. Loren had survived that little fiasco, but it had been touch and go, and now Mia… God. Mia was our friend because Loren and I had saved her, and because she’d received gifts and powers that only we could understand and help her control.

Jesus. Had I left her behind to die, along with that little toad Tom, and Dr. Johar, probably the only person who could help us stop Chandler?

I couldn’t answer any of those questions. Not here, not now. I had to focus, put my fears out of my mind.

I concentrated for a moment and the sword vanished, disappearing to wherever it went — whether it was inside me or in a convenient nearby extradimensional pocket I was never able to determine. Then, picking a direction I started to walk, checking on my other armaments as I went.

No explosives left. I’d used them all in the tunnels, though Chandler had escaped the worst of it at the expense of his human and ghul toadies. I still had my Glock 41, with about half a clip remaining and a spare 13-round mag. My relationship with firearms was a complex one best described as love-hate, or at least an alliance of convenience, for I actually hated the damned things while knowing that I needed them. I’d taken the 41 because we’d been dealing with ghul — big, unnaturally tough monstrosities that could shrug off rounds from anything smaller. Now I was saddled with a two-pound .45 caliber hand cannon to lug around in a sylvan alternate reality, but that was the hand I’d been dealt and I’d live with it.

It wasn’t much comfort anyway. I’d dealt with monsters that needed 40mm grenades or RPGs to slow them down, and who knew what kind of horrors were lurking in this seemingly-peaceful forest? Time would tell, I was sure.

The land around me began to slope downward and the trees grew less thickly. The shrubs and undergrowth looked as if they had grown from the same ancestry as earthly plants but gone in entirely different directions. Flowers bloomed in white, yellow and red. Insects with multiple wings and too many legs flitted through the air. Birds of every color cried in the trees in new but not-new songs.

At length I came out of the forest on to a slope covered in the purplish grass and yellow-leafed shrubs. Ahead the ground dropped off into a cliff, and perhaps a quarter of a mile distant I saw shaggy hills rising, and not a single sign of civilization. I was just wondering whether I’d have to build myself and treehouse and learn to make birch-bark trousers when I heard a rustling from behind me.

There was no one there — the tall trees stood on the edge of the slope, moving gently in a cool breeze…

…And a mottled green arrow shot from the shadows, burying itself in the ground at my feet.

The sword flashed into material existence, even though my instincts told me to run.

But to run where? A cliff yawned at the foot of the slope, and I had no idea how tall it was. Fleeing across the open space while a hidden enemy had me bracketed was suicide, and though I still had my Glock, there were no targets to be seen.

“Surrender!” came a voice from the woods, and even though it was not in English I could understand it. The wonders of trans-dimensional travel never ceased to amaze me. “Surrender or die! This is your only warning, man!”

The voice was female, and she said “man” as if it was an insult, though my guess was that she was referring to my species rather than my gender. I wasn’t sure exactly what the unseen speaker intended to do with me once I gave up, but right now it seemed like the more sensible option. I closed my eyes for an instant, forcibly willing the sword away, though it plainly didn’t want to go. I raised my hands meekly; I still had the sword, hidden where no one could take it away, and with luck my new friends wouldn’t know what the automatic pistol in my holster was.

Then again, they might just kill me and be done with it.

“I give up!” I shouted. “I mean you no harm!”

There was a pause, then a trio of figures emerged from the trees.

Holy shit. If Loren had been there he’d have dropped dead from sheer joy. For all appearances they were elves. Real, honest to gosh, tall and slender, silver-haired, greenish-skinned elves, bearing shining white bows and dressed as if Robin Hood’s merry men had mated with a tribal punk band.

Not that it made them any friendlier, for they approached me with obvious hostility, bows drawn and arrows aimed straight at me. I sincerely hoped that they all had firm grips.

“What is your name, man?” The lead elf was female. She was of course lithe and beautiful, with long, graceful features and strange golden eyes, but she wore battered leathers decorated with random stones and beads, her hair was limed and spiked, her face tattooed, and she wore a string of what looked like mummified ears around her neck. Charming. “Why have you come here?”

“I’m Alex,” I replied, somewhat unsteadily. “I came here pursuing an enemy. A creepy guy in a fedora.”

The elf woman drew back, lowering her bow. “Alex?” she demanded. “Alex Sinjun?”

After a moment of astonished silence, I managed to conjure up a nod. “Yeah. Thanks for pronouncing it right.”

The woman slowly released the tension on her bowstring, then nodded at her companions, who also lowered their weapons. She replaced the arrow in the quiver at her side and without another word, placed two fingers in her mouth and produced a high, ear-splitting whistle.

I frowned. “What…”

I didn’t finish, for there was a loud rush of air behind me. A great shadow fell across the sun, a powerful gust of wind struck my back, and I faceplanted comically on the grassy slope in front of me.

“Alex?”

I rolled onto my back and gazed up in fearful astonishment at the wonder that hung in the air above me.

It was a dragon. The size of a pair of busses set end-to-end and covered in greenish-bronze scales from its horned and crested head to its finned tail, its massive forearms supporting colossal sail-like wings that beat forward and back, producing a wall of wind with each stroke, its feet sporting claws like scimitars, its teeth like swords, its eyes like flame… Hell, it put to shame every dragon I’d ever seen in movies or pictured in my head from The Hobbit to Game of Thrones. But that wasn’t the most amazing thing.

“Alex?” A blessedly familiar voice said again. “Oh, thank God it’s you.”

I gaped. Now was the time to deliver a pithy quote — a quip that would put any action movie hero to shame.

Unfortunately I couldn’t think of one.

“Fuck me.”

From the elaborate, tooled leather and silver saddle on the dragon’s back, Annabelle Lee Moore broke into a radiant smile. “Is that an invitation, Alex? If so I’d prefer you not do it in front of the elves.”

She was radiant. Beautiful. As welcome and beloved a sight as the goddess that had once inhabited her. More so because she was human.

She was dressed like some kind of fantasy Valkyrie — in fine silver mail that fit her like a suit, greaves, vambraces and gauntlets. At her left hip she bore an elaborate sword, far too large for a normal sized human like her, and at her right a wooden rack held a tall white lance from which a blue and white banner fluttered. A helmet hung from her saddle — winged and crafted of bright silver chased with gold.

Her pale blue eyes were still framed by her black glasses — you know, the kind that should be horrible but actually make their wearers look both sexy and devastatingly intelligent — a weird but strangely appropriate contrast to her Wagnerian outfit, and she gazed at me with a combination of affection, relief and amusement.

I stood up. Behind me the elves bowed their heads respectfully.

“Fancy meeting you here.” There was real relief behind my flippant tone. “The last time I saw you, you were on your way to a punk club with Loren and Rob.”

Her smile widened. “It’s a long story.”

“You’ll have to tell me all about it. I assume you’ve got an explanation for the armor and the big lizard.”

She feigned shock, pursing her lips and patting the dragon’s scaly neck. “Athramar does not like being called a lizard, Alex. He’s actually very sweet once you get to know him.”

I nodded. “I’m sure. Now can we all go somewhere and have a nice round of margaritas and discuss things?”

“Of course.” She tapped the dragon again and it alighted nearby, shaking the ground like an earth tremor, then crouched down, extending its long, muscular neck toward me.

Anna patted a space behind her. “Saddle up, partner.”

I scrambled up the dragon’s neck and across its wing hesitantly. Its scales were warm with sunlight, and shifted up and down with its breathing as I went. Nervous, heart racing I slid into the saddle.

“Better buckle up,” Anna advised. “I’d hate to lose you in the middle of a barrel roll.”

I complied, wrapping myself in a dragon-appropriate harness that fitted around my waist and over my shoulders. “Tell him to go easy. I’ve never ridden a dragon before.”

She nodded, then shouted at the three archers. “Susikäärme! I’m heading back for the Citadel! Meet us there!”

The lead elf nodded in acknowledgement, then turned and led the others back toward the trees at lightning speed, racing across the grass like greyhounds.

“Enchanting woman,” I muttered. “Where’d she get the ears?”

“I’m not sure. All I can say is be glad she’s on our side.”

I chuckled. “You make friends wherever you go, don’t you?”

“It’s better than the alternative. Now hold on and try not to scream or vomit.”

With an admonition like that it was a wonder that I actually managed to keep my eyes open as, with a brief crouch and a leap that left my stomach far behind, Athramar bounded into the air, its titanic wings moving ponderously up and down, sending out powerful gusts that flattened the grass and shook the undergrowth behind us.

The land below dwindled. I like to think I’m not scared of many things, but I’ve always been ambivalent about heights. Now of course I had no choice, and tried desperately not to think about the vast and growing distance between me and the ground, focusing on the landscape beneath us as it transformed from full size to miniature railroad scale.

It was a vast and trackless forest, to be sure. The trees were mostly green and of an outwardly deciduous nature, with a few yellow and red stands mixed in here and there, as if it was simultaneously lush spring and chilly autumn. In the distance a river looped through the forest, winding lazily, gleaming green-white in the sun. Flights of birds rose up here and there, panicked at the fall of Athramar’s fearsome shadow. Farther off I could see the grey slopes of mountains topped with snow and in the mists at their foot I fancied that I could see the straight lines and rigid geometric shapes of an artificial construction, but it was miles away and I couldn’t be sure. There were also clearings in the forest with what looked like small dwellings, and even clusters of huts that might have been villages. Again, it was hard to tell as we soared higher and higher, and a chill touched the air.

“Welcome to Valtakimäinen!” Anna shouted, glancing back at me to make sure I wasn’t having a coronary from fright. “Or the First Kingdoms, which is easier to say!”

“Are we speaking their language?” I asked. “It sounds strange, but I understand it.”

“Yeah, same here. I think we are. It’s like the transition adjusted our brains to it. When I think about it I realize I’m speaking it, and it sounds Finno-Ugrian, but I can’t be sure.”

That might have been an interesting discussion for another day, and as fascinating as my sky-high view of the world was, I mostly wanted our flight to be over, and have solid ground once more under my feet.

“How far are we going?” I shouted. “I was never much for open-cockpit flying!”

“A while yet,” came the reply. “A lot’s going down out here, Alex! I’m going to need to fill you in while we go!”

“You sure your voice can hold out? We’re bellowing at each other like we’re in Akira!”

“I’ll worry about my voice, lover!” She twisted in her seat and looked me as close to in the eye as she could manage. “Now settle down and listen. Think of it as your in-flight movie.”

I sighed. “Okay, sweetheart. I’m all ears.”

“I noticed,” she replied. “It’s why I love you.”

II: Deeds Vain and Mortal

Anna

In the shock of cold and the whirling chaos that followed her leap into the portal, Anna could sense Beowulf barking frantically. It wasn’t with her ears exactly, for in the blank spaces of the Between there were no true senses, only impulses that spoke directly to the brain, mimicking sight, speech, sound, touch… She’d been here before — more times than anyone save perhaps Alex, and even so she felt a greater connection to the place, a weird familiarity, like an extended case of déjà vu in which this dark, frightening and inhospitable place seemed more like a home of sorts — a place that she had visited and grown accustomed to, but never truly loved or felt welcome.

Perhaps it was that familiarity that held her back, sent her spinning down an alternative path, through the glowing (or seemingly glowing, for she knew she didn’t truly see them so much as form impressions) portals to other places, other realities both friendly and hostile… the gentle beauty of Frank’s world, the lost decay of a cosmos where rage and sadness and unrequited regret formed themselves into monstrous shapes that were always hungry but never satiated, cosmoses of fire and stone and ice and water where dwelt beings of impossibly alien nature with names like Onatochee, Mimma-Lemnu, Idimma-Xul, and others even more horrific…

She dwelt here too — the strange being called Tsagaglalal, Nemesis, She Who Watches, Belet-Ili… Who manifested as a whirling cosmos of silver-white, or as a flawless woman crafted of light and borne aloft on angel’s wings…

It was that being… Goddess? Alien? Entity? Demon?… that had possessed Anna, then left behind a part of herself. A part that could manifest powers normally found in the pages of X-Men or Avengers. But hers was a confused and contrary world where such powers only made her another misfit, recipient of knowledge that few even cared to hear, seeking out only that tiny handful of others who believed as she did — that the universe was little more than a painted veil, presenting beauty to hide the horrors that lurked behind…

The tint of silver-blue filled Anna’s perceptions, and she felt the warmth of Her presence. Goddess or Devil, She was here, and She was comfort.

“Belet-Ili?” Anna’s “voice” that was not truly a voice seemed to vanish into the all-dampening velvet darkness of the Between. “Are you here?”

I come, child. I come for the barriers are weak once more, and the veil has been pierced. Deeds vain and mortal again endanger all that is.

Now Anna swam in the midst of a constellation of stars and planets, gliding harmoniously through a glowing sky, in patterns that seemed to speak and fill her with both wonder and terror.

“Chandler?” she asked. “You mean Chandler?”

The one who touches what should not be touched. Who toys with things that should be forgotten. The last remnants of the Great Enemy are lost and fade from memory. Yet he seeks them, to reunite and gain a portion of that which was once wielded by the one you called Mimma-Lemnu.

The demon-god, Arngrim’s ancient foe, the one who conquered and burned. The one who had been worshipped by those who would give him access to the world, and turn the entire Earth into his new conquest. But he was dead… In Belet-Ili’s guise, and aided by Arngrim and the last of the Fallen, Anna had vanquished him. His corpse had fallen, sundered, and from him a world had been reborn…

Power lingers. Lingers for far longer than the memory of man. He believes that he will gain the power of the Enemy, but he is a fool. He will only gain enough to burn his soul to ashes, and in doing burn a dozen worlds. He is close, daughter. Close to what he seeks. You and my Shepherd, and your companions are bound to him, bound by the power of the Fragment, by your friendship with my Fallen, by the wyrd of the cosmos. Take this, daughter. Bring it to the Eldest Ones. Your coming is prophesized, for my Fallen have assured it.

As Anna struggled to make sense of the goddess’ pronouncements, she saw a stream of glittering blue-white motes swirl down from the spinning suns and planets, forming a shape before her. It resembled a human figure, tall and crafted of silver, with pale wings sprouting from its temples…

Armor. It was a suit of armor.

“You and your companions are the Enkeli’hërut. You are the Celestial One, who comes at the time of greatest need. Your companions are the Champion, the Paladin, the Stranger, the Priestess, the Ebon Hound…”

The names meant nothing to her, and those strange syllables echoed in her mind… Enkeli’hërut…

Herald… portent… prophesized… The one who brought word of great things or people…

Harbinger.

Anna felt the silver armor merging with her, shaping itself around her body, fitting to her shape, becoming almost part of her.

Enkeli’hërut, my child. Find your friends. Find the Stranger — my Shepherd, my Nomeus. Find them and break the pattern. Send the Kuningsväro to the shadow. Do this, my child. Stand in the doorway with a single candle and defy darkness. Save those you can. Avenge those you cannot. Go now.

The goddess’ urgency was palpable, and now, armored in something that belonged in a Michael Moorcock novel, Anna felt herself drawn back, flying swiftly toward a familiar greenish portal, and through it saw…

***

…Well not much, really. The faint outlines of rocks, a boundless depth of darkness overhead, a rough stone floor underfoot and moist, cold air in her nostrils. The oppressive dampening of thousands of tons of earth pressed down on her and she could instinctively tell that she was deep underground. The dim light that surrounded her radiated from her own skin and from the armor she wore.

Great. Thanks. Tell me I’m the goddamned chosen one again, then leave me buried alive in some godforsaken cavern. She Who Watches was up to her old tricks.

But she wasn’t alone, Anna realized within a few seconds of orienting herself. From the impenetrable shadow beyond her immediate gaze she heard a deep rushing sound, like the long, long indrawing of breath into gigantic lungs. Then a moment later, hot wind struck her, a vast exhalation, and two golden points of light appeared in the darkness ahead. The light grew slowly, picking out the details of what lay before her.

She stepped back involuntarily, suppressing a shriek of fear only with great effort.

The body filled most of the chamber where they stood. It was curled around itself, a scaled reptilian body with a powerful neck, clawed feet and wings folded against its back. She felt like a minnow gazing at a mighty blue whale.

Slowly, with ponderous grace, the horned head rose, regarding her with its twin golden eyes. They radiated yellow light, illuminating the chamber softly. It was part cave, part temple, roughly round and surrounded by decorative columns carved from the living rock, covered over by a domed ceiling, inscribed with thousands of intricate runes that were different from the Proto-Akkadian inscriptions on the Ravenglass Fragment.

The dragon — yeah, it was stupid to call it anything else — stirred, unwinding itself stiffly, as if it had just awakened from a very long slumber. Its eyes remained fixed on her, and when it didn’t snap her up in its elephantine jaws Anna relaxed a tiny bit. Fear still pulsed through her lizard-brain, urging her to flee screaming, but fortunately her rational side told her that there was nowhere she could run to, and besides she wasn’t dead yet, and that at least was encouraging.

As it moved, testing its limbs and flexing its wings, the dragon kept its gaze fixed intently on her, and in her mind Anna felt rather than heard the echo of a name.

“Athramar?” she asked softly, feeling her voice vanish into the vast space of the chamber. “Is your name Athramar?”

The beast inclined its head slightly, then gazed at her in a manner that somehow seemed expectant.

“Anna,” she replied. “Annabelle Lee Moore. I’m… I’m pleased to meet you.”

God, that sounded stupid.

But it seemed to have the desired effect. The dragon now swung its head to one side, guiding Anna’s gaze to a stone platform that held three items — a dragon-sized saddle, a long white lance and a sword that looked big enough to give Alex an inferiority complex.

“You want me to take those?” she asked.

Athramar lowered its (Anna felt no sense of gender from the creature, so in her mind she kept things neutral) head, revealing a broad space at the base of its neck where the saddle would fit perfectly.

Anna drew a long, deep breath. Okay, she thought, stepping toward the platform. Here goes nothing.

***

By the time she’d finished, Anna had almost gotten over her fear of the huge creature. It remained patiently still as she dragged up the heavy saddle and maneuvered it painfully into place, experimenting with straps and buckles, finally securing it in a way that at least looked correct, attaching sword and lance and finally strapping down the heavy, winged helm that had so far only gotten in the way.

Besides the helmet, the armor moved as if it had been made specifically to her unique dimensions. She’d heard of things fitting “like a second skin” but (with the exception of certain latex outfits she’d experimented with) she had never quite experienced it in this way. What the armor was, where it had come from and why she’d been given it remained mysteries, but in the past few years she’d learned to live with mystery.

Once the saddle and weapons were secure she clambered onto Athramar’s back and buckled the draconic seat belt — naturally triggering alarming thoughts of acrobatic flight and the danger of falling. She swallowed and pushed the concerns out of her head.

“Okay, Athramar,” she said, patting the dragon’s neck and noting that its scales were each the size of her palm, “where to now?”

In response, the dragon began to walk, body moving in a titanic serpentine with each step. The darkness nearby melted away in the light of Athramar’s eyes, and she saw a wide pair of doors inscribed with more runes and the image of a huge dragon’s face. As Athramar strode along the doors slid silently open, revealing a long rocky passageway beyond.

“So where are we headed, dragon?” she asked. “Eternal glory or certain death?”

Athramar snorted briefly, expelling a tiny burst of flames.

Anna hoped that it was an indication that Athramar had a sense of humor.

They ascended now, up steps that were rough-hewn at the bottom, then increasingly finished and fine-featured as they went, eventually emerging into a broad hallway of black marble, clearly built to accommodate a creature of Athramar’s bulk. Ahead of them was another set of gates, these black and gold, lit by Athramar’s eyes and Anna’s bluish glow. As she watched, they slid open as effortlessly as the first set, revealing a pale sky and emitting a gust of cold wind. Beneath her the dragon began to pick up speed, its feet pounding faster and faster on the marble floor.

“Uh, Athramar…”

Faster…

ATHRAMAAAR!”

The dragon wasn’t listening. It plunged through the opening and plummeted into a deep airy gulf. Wind rushed past Anna, her stomach threatened to actually leave her body, and her breath was torn from her lungs before the vast wings unfurled, caught the air and bore them steadily upward.

Sure this was dragon-land, and she was dressed like Brunhilde, but gravity was the same no matter where you went, and the crushing fist of g-forces hit like a runaway train. It was only an instant, but darkness passed over her eyes and consciousness, then faded, leaving Anna confused and light-headed, desperately trying to make sense of the world around her.

They had emerged from a high mountain peak, craggy and clad in snow. Below, a land spread out full of green trees and winding black rivers. The sky, like the sun, was white with a slight verdant tinge — enough to be noticeable, but not enough to be truly disturbing.

Athramar flew level for several minutes as the wilderness scrolled along beneath them, then Anna caught a glimpse of a grassy plain along a wide river. It was dotted with hundreds of tiny figures, arrayed in lines, squares, sweeping arcs… Faintly, over the cold bellow of the wind Anna heard the clang of metal-on-metal, punctuated by faint shouts and terrible screams.

It was a battle. She’d fought in a few since meeting Alex, and she knew well that the chaos and bloody confusion on the ground bore little resemblance to the neat diagrams and reconstructions in history books. Yet here she was, thousands of feet above the battlefield, watching the contention of tiny specks, black and featureless, like the dots on a computer simulation…

Before Anna was able to consider the situation much further, Athramar bent its neck toward the fight, angling downward, and folded its wings, sending them into another sickening descent. She was ready for it this time and managed once more to keep her stomach relatively well-behaved.

As they drew near at a dizzying speed she could make out details of the combatants. On the side closest, their backs to the river, were tall, slender creatures in dark blue-black armor. They were human, or at least close to human, save for silvery hair and greenish skin. They fought with curved weapons that flashed in the sunlight, and bore crescent shields. Some shot bows, while others rode slender, long-headed creatures with fine green-scaled hides and only a passing resemblance to horses. Banners flew above them, bearing stylized icons and exotic letters that Anna couldn’t read, but which looked like some of the alien alphabets that Alex had drawn from his dream of the shining dodecahedron.

When Anna saw what was arrayed against them, she instantly knew what side she was on. An unruly horde of filthy bodies surged toward the river — thin, wiry, with lean skeletal canine faces, dirty broken claws and sickly, leprous skin… There were easily a thousand, outnumbering the others at least two to one.

Ghul. Anna almost shouted the word in disgust, feeling the blue-white power surge inside her, feeling her skin begin to burn and glow under her armor, feeling the telltale tingling along her back that presaged the appearance of her wings…

Grave-dwellers. Corpse-eaters. The very monstrous things they had been fighting for years now. They were not evil by nature… she had in fact learned of ghul who had helped Alex, and who still stood ready to aid him in times of need. But Anna had not met them, at least not in the present reality, and all that she had encountered had been savage, merciless horrors bent on slaughter and grisly feasting.

And these… These were different from the ghul she had seen. They were abroad in the day — that alone was alarming, for they normally shunned bright light and hid in their burrows during the day. And these… These were even more terrifying, for their flesh was rent and scarred, replaced with bloody metal limbs, faces, eyes and teeth. Their tattered hides were further disfigured by rusted metal armor that seemed as if it had literally been bolted or welded to their skin, and they fought with barbed, saw-toothed and jagged weapons crafted from junk and scrap.

They were a mess, but they were winning. As Anna watched, a knot of ghul overtook a trio of riders who were racing desperately back toward their battle lines. The riders were surrounded, overwhelmed, crushed beneath a tangle of bodies. Anna held back a cry when she saw blood jetting and heard the echoes of a triumphal howl when one of the ghuls stood, exultant, raising a severed arm still wet with gore.

The fire burst then, rising in an instant from a smoldering flame to a full-scale inferno.

As they always did, words rose to her lips — words from another time, another place. Words that she had never learned but understood nonetheless.

Nisme, Utu Kanpa! Rabishu idin na zu!

Hear me, Lords of Sunlight! Send the evil ones to the desert!

Light flashed from her eyes, from her fingertips, from the soaring wings above her back. Without a thought Anna loosed the straps that held her in Athramar’s saddle, and soared into the sky beside the dragon, racing down from the sky and into the madness below.

III: The Faceless Ones

The effect of their descent was instantaneous. As soon as Athramar’s racing shadow fell across the battlefield, the defenders (oh hell, she thought… They look like elves, I might as well call them “elves”) looked up as one, their grim expressions transforming into beaming gazes of wonder and delight, and the shout Athramar! Athramar! began to spread across their tattered lines.

For the ghul it was almost the exact opposite. Anna didn’t even give them time to react initially, but with the shout Barra! a burst of blue flames sprang from her outstretched fingers, raging through the creatures, turning a dozen or more to flaming dust. Panic struck like a falling anvil, and the ghul fell back, shouting in snarling counterpoint to the elves.

Kashaptu! Kashaptu! Abatu! Kashaptu!

The elves didn’t wait for the shock to wear off. Officers in silver-plumed helms shouted and gestured, broken formations rapidly drew back together, fleeing riders turned, lances and bows ready. In moments the elves had reformed their battle line, drawn up reserves and surged forward in a single, inexorable tide, sunlight glittering from hundreds of weapons, drawn and raised.

Anna delivered another blast, felling more ghul, while Athramar wheeled, beating its wings with such fury that it sent ghuls tumbling like dominoes. With almost casual ease the dragon flapped to a hundred yards or so behind the main body of ghul and alighted ponderously, wings still spread, square in the path of the ghuls’ retreat.

If the ghul had ever been an army, they ceased to be very quickly, devolving into a horde of panicked individuals, pressed on one side by the vengeful enemy and on the other by an angry dragon. Even that confusion didn’t last long, for Athramar inhaled deeply, then unleashed a roaring blast of flames that rolled across the panic-stricken ghul, transforming the entire front of the throng into a crowd of blacked, burning rag dolls.

Anna set down nearby, watching as the elves swept the field and Athramar burned survivors or crushed them beneath its massive paws. It didn’t look as if they needed any more help, and she was already starting to feel wobbly, as she invariably did when unleashing her inner goddess. If she kept it up much longer she’d find herself sleeping for three days straight, and right now that was the last thing she wanted.

With effort she turned off the faucet, pushing her magical powers back into their box, feeling weariness sweep over her as the sustaining energy vanished. Fending off a wave of dizziness she managed to stay on her feet as two riders mounted on the strange green-scaled beasts approached. The first was male (at least he looked male, though who knew what the gender standards were on this world?) and was clad in silver armor, a long lance strapped to his saddle and a blue banner with one of those iconic symbols flying behind him. The second was (again, apparently) female with long, unbound (and, Anna noted with surprise given circumstances, untangled) silver hair, a green metal circlet and long robes of blue and violet.

“Hail, Celestial!” shouted the male, raising one hand and bowing his head respectfully. “I am Lord Sulka! We bring thanks for our deliverance to you and to the Mother of Heaven!”

“I am Sister Kuutamo,” said the woman. “Priestess and handmaid to the All Father. You have come as prophecy spoke, bringing the blessings of the Mother and the power of the great wyrm Athramar! Blessings upon you!”

Anna felt taken aback for a moment. How the hell did one respond to that kind of greeting?

“Nice to meet you too,” she said. “I’m Anna.”

Marla

The Fortress of the Law was in tumult as the handful of Death Guard stumbled through the gates, moaning, limping or dragging ruined limbs. Just three days ago, a thousand had set out, bound for Keiju territory, determined to bring the rebellious natives to heel. By all accounts, initial encounters had gone well for the ghul but something had happened yesterday, something that reduced the proud, fanatical Death Guard to perhaps 50 dispirited refugees.

“Who did this?” Marla Drake barked at the Death Guard who cringed and whined before her. The ghul had once had a metal arm, but half of it was gone, and looked as if it had been snipped in half by a pair of gigantic bolt cutters. She was also horribly burned, leaving the entire left half of her body raw and seared, ready to transform into twisted scar tissue.

Once she might have been frightened of one such as this, but Marla Drake had learned a lot in the past few years. If she maintained the right attitude of dominance, even these savage things would roll over and beg for her. Especially ones like this — scarred, beaten and terrified.

“I asked you a question!” Marla kicked, landing a steel-toed boot beneath the ghul’s chin and sending her sprawling. “Who the fuck did this to you?”

One good eye stared back at her, wide and red, and the ruined lips formed a word.

Kashaptu,” the ghul woman whispered.

Marla frowned. “What the hell is…”

Kashaptu.” Louder now. Then again. “Kashaptu! Kashaptu!”

Marla stepped back in surprise. It looked as if the ghul was having some kind of seizure. She rolled on the ground, shouting the name over and over.

Kashaptu! Kashaptu! KASHAAAAAAPTUUUUU!”

“Jesus Christ!” Marla’s lip curled in disgust. She gestured at a pair of Dead Ones standing guard nearby. “You two! Get this piece of garbage out of my sight. Now!”

The two younger ghul hastened to obey, dragging out the struggling Death Guard. Her screams continued, but faded to join the general cacophony in the courtyard as she was carried away.

“What the fuck is going on?” Panzerboy sprawled in a big carved wood chair, a gold goblet filled with Jaegermeister in one hand. He was dressed in battered cargo pants and a Wolves in the Throneroom t-shirt and behind him were two electric guitars on stands. Why the hell he insisted on bringing those damned things to a world without electricity was beyond Marla, but she didn’t have time to worry about it.

“If I knew I’d tell you,” she replied, irritated. Outside the moonlit courtyard was full of milling ghul, lizard men and other miscellaneous troops. Word of the disaster would be spreading even now. She wouldn’t be surprised if every single human clansman hadn’t deserted by morning.

“What was it she said? ‘Kashaptu’? What was that supposed to mean?”

“Please refer to my last response.” Marla scanned the leather-bound volumes and paintings that covered her walls, as if she could magically discern which one contained an explanation. “All I know is that we got our ass kicked, and we’re going to have to explain to Gordon when he gets back.”

That got Panzerboy’s attention. He suddenly sat upright, Jaegermeister sloshing. “Hey, what are you talking about? It wasn’t our fault. Fuckin’ ghouls got slaughtered, not us.”

Marla turned back toward Panzerboy. She loved the kid, but sometimes he just didn’t get it.

“Look, Gary.” She always used his real name when she wanted to be serious. “You have to understand something. It’s about responsibility. We’re in charge while he’s gone. Even if someone else fucks up, we’re responsible for it because we’re in charge. It’s like being a general. If a private makes a mistake that loses a battle, you still have to explain it and fix it if it needs to be fixed. And if we don’t fix it before Gordon gets back he is going to be pissed.”

Panzerboy Gary fell silent. They’d always been two of Gordon’s favorites, at least in Portland, but they’d seen what he did to screw-ups and failures, even those he liked. The dawning horror that drained the blood from his face and left him staring wide-eyed suggested that Gary had never before considered the possibility that he might one day be one of those screw-ups.

“But that’s not fair.” There was more than a trace of petulant teenager in Gary’s tone.

Jesus!” Marla threw up her hands and turned away in disgust. “So go write a fucking song about it. Call it Gordon Doesn’t Understand Me or some bullshit like that. It’d be better than writing another goddamned song about being mad at your dad!”

Anger flared in Gary’s eyes and he leaped to his feet, throwing his cup aside and splattering liquid across the marble floor.

“Fuck you!” he snarled. “You’re just like all those other bitches! Goddamned slut, thinking you’re as good as — ”

She hit him. Not as hard as she’d have liked to, but hard enough to get is attention. He recoiled, holding his face where her blow had landed, staring at her in confusion, anger and fear.

“Shut the fuck up, Gary. I’m sick of hearing you whine. Complaining about the world and how unfair it all is, and why doesn’t someone do something about all the horrible feminists and SJWs and beta cucks and horrible, mean people who don’t let you do what you want. Well right now we have a chance to actually fucking do something, but you’re still sitting there drinking Gordon’s booze and whining about how unfair it all is. Get your ass in gear, Gary. If Gordon finds out what you’ve been doing, he won’t be anywhere near as nice as I am, so pretty please, with sugar on top… Get off your ass and help me!”

It cowed him completely, of course. Like most guys of his ilk, Gary talked a good game especially if he was behind a guitar or a computer keyboard, but when confronted he collapsed like a house of cards. He stared back at her, desperately trying to blink away tears.

“What do we do?” he asked, tremulously.

Marla paused for a moment, glancing toward the fearful crowd outside and listening to the howls of the wounded.

“I’m going to go see if there are any survivors who aren’t pissing themselves in terror, and maybe find out what the hell ‘Kashaptu’ is. You, on the other hand — ” Here she fixed Gary with a sharp and demanding stare — “are going to take a recon squad out and maybe, just maybe, figure out what the hell happened to those sorry bastards.”

Gary swallowed hard. “Right now?”

“Yeah. Right now.” She took a deep breath and purposely softened her tone. “Do it for me, Gary. I’m sorry I blew up at you, but you need to fucking get your shit together and help out. Gordon has spent his whole life… You understand? His. Whole. Life… fighting for guys like you, and now you need to fight for him for a change. You understand, honey? Do you?”

Even delivered in a soft and pleading tone it wasn’t what Gary wanted to hear, but he still nodded and whispered, “Yeah.”

“Okay, sweetie. Now let’s get going. We need to deal with this shit.”

She waited until he had left, casting back a final glance — part sad, part resentful — then strode out into the courtyard, letting the crowds of ghul and other horrors part before her.

Panzerboy

He hated it when people called him “Gary.” That’s what his mother called him. That’s what teachers called him, except when they were trying to be cool and called him “Mister Messler.” Shit. That was even worse.

His squad consisted of six hand-picked Death Guard, some of the handful that had stayed behind when the main body marched out. They were disquietingly silent, since all had had their tongues removed. They were called the Redu-Ulpana — the Faceless Ones — and they communicated with an intricate set of hand and body gestures that Panzerboy had had to memorize. Or at least try to memorize. By this time he could only understand about half what they said, but that was enough to get by.

They were the elite of the elite Death Guard — even more radically modified than their fellow ghul cultists. As their name implied, none of them had much left of their original faces — metal jaws, painfully-implanted obsidian teeth, flayed snouts… All that remained were their eyes, sometimes two, sometimes only a single functional orb. There were other modifications as well, like spikes along their backbones, metal horns grafted to their skulls, sawblades at their joints, limbs wrapped in razor wire or studded with shards of razors, and other even more horrifying mutilations.

Shit. More appropriate to some fucking Norwegian metal band than anything else, really. Panzerboy spent part of his time being disgusted by them and the rest being grateful that they were on his side. Gordon had impressed on them that Marla and Panzerboy were to be obeyed instantly, and they had obeyed. Now they crept along in silence, dark and frightening silhouettes picked out in the pale silvery-green of a three-quarter moon. A second, smaller moon called Nopeapeura –– the Swift Deer –– was there as well, probably a captured asteroid or other small body that fled across the sky twice each evening, going from full to new back to full as it went.

It was a weird fucking planet, that was for sure. Well, not “planet” exactly. It was, Gordon had explained, another reality. A convenient parallel dimension, like they’d said on Ghostbusters. Here, Gordon had said, they could live in safety, drawing up their plans, gathering the scattered fragments of the Object and waiting for the day that they would return to earth and show who had the real power.

But that meant getting help from aberrants like the Faceless Ones and their other cults. Panzerboy suppressed a shudder. Ghul were bad enough on their own, but now transformed into some kind of fanatical breed of junk-studded cyborgs? Shit, he hated this part.

He knew better than to make small talk with the ghul as well. They never even replied, not even with rude gestures. Besides, what the fuck did they know about life and music and rebellion? Hell, this place was cool and everything, but Panzerboy longed to go back home where he could be what he wanted to be instead of Gordon P. Chandler’s…

Panzerboy stopped mid-thought, throwing a concrete traffic barrier into the path that his mind had been going. No way he was going to start resenting Chandler. Sure he was an arrogant, loudmouthed asshole, but he spoke his mind, he told it like it was. He didn’t screw around with any PC bullshit or worry about hurting the delicate snowflake SJWs’ precious feelings or care if they whined and cried and called him a “racist”. He was a real man, and fuck it… No matter how big an asshole he was, he was the man that Panzerboy had thrown in with. The man who would give him what he deserved, what his whole generation deserved.

He let the squad lead the way — they were the scouts, not him. He was just here to keep them in line and relay back anything they learned. They’d made excellent time, covering the ground between the citadel and the Kivijoka River. It meant “Stone River” in the damned green-skins’ language, and the ford a few miles south was where the Death Guard had intended to cross over into Keiju territory. They’d already passed a few burned-out villages strewn with corpses and slain animals that indicated the Guard had successfully made it this far. Though the Faceless Ones looked sorely tempted by the butchered bodies they maintained discipline and, to Panzerboy’s relief, pressed on.

The moons were bright, and the fleeing light of the Swift Deer made shadows and illumination shift almost from minute to minute. Ahead lay the plain before the ford, and well before they reached the place Panzerboy caught the scent of burning flesh and dismembered corpses.

Unfortunately, the corpses were all Death Guard. Though there was blood on the grass and broken Keiju weapons aplenty, there were no bodies, indicating that the defenders (whom Gordon had insisted on referring to as “elves” as much as that annoyed Panzerboy) had won the fight and taken their dead back with them.

The Faceless Ones scattered, loping across the ground on all fours, sniffing and making faint grunting sounds in their throats. Their hand signals flashed back and forth, faster than Panzerboy could make out. Though the Death Guard had painfully trained in sunlight to the point that they could tolerate it for long periods, the ghul remained creatures of the night, living in a world of scent and sound.

Watching from a distance as the Faceless Ones ignored him in favor of their bizarre forensic battlefield analysis, Panzerboy was able to make out a few of the gestures, and these disturbed him.

Butchered. Wiped out. Burnt. Sorcery…

And a gesture that he had learned but never truly expected to see or use.

Dragon.

Panzerboy felt a wave of fear sweep over him. Dragons. They’d always been imaginary. Crap told to children. Like that Harry Potter shit, that Hobbit book, those fucking TV shows everyone was so excited about…

But even here, in a world with magical beasts and demons and monsters and things called elves, dragons still seemed nothing but a fantasy. So many other things could exist, but dragons…? Shit, where was it all going to end…?

He took a step toward the nearest Faceless One as it crouched, digging in the soil and snuffling loudly, intending to demand a fuller explanation. But then the white-shafted shape of an arrow plummeted silently out of the night, striking the ghul with a loud “thunk” and spearing it through the neck.

Then all hell broke loose. The Faceless Ones were on their feet, drawing weapons and growling low in their chests. The wounded scout stood as well, even though the long arrow had passed completely through his neck and stabbed out the other side. Instinctively, Panzerboy crouched down, watching as the ghuls exploded into motion, bounding into the darkness against the still-unseen enemy.

They didn’t remain unseen for long. At least a score of riders burst from the shadows and charged through the shallow river, long white bows drawn, raining more arrows down on the Faceless Ones. Keiju… lightly armored and riding on their damned green-scaled horse-things.

He wanted to run, but all around him was motion and blood as a Faceless One swung its serrated sword, decapitating a mount and sending its rider crashing to the ground, where the ghul leaped, slashing, stabbing and biting in a froth of black moonlit blood. A few yards away another Faceless One fell lifeless to the ground, pierced by a dozen or more arrows.

One of the scouts rushed toward Panzerboy, frantically gesturing with its free hand.

Flee. To Citadel. Tell them. Dragon. Dragon. Dragon.

Then the scout fell in an explosion of gore as a light lance thrust it through the chest and a lithe green horse-beast charged over its twitching body.

Panzerboy couldn’t hold it back any longer. He screamed and turned away, racing mindlessly back the way he’d come.

Then something struck him heavily from behind and he felt himself falling. He hit the ground with a jarring impact, then cried out again as something heavy crashed down on his back, driving the wind from his lungs and pouring cold darkness into his brain.

Panzerboy’s last conscious thought was the sincere hope that he was dead.

And as with most of Panzerboy’s hopes and wishes, this one didn’t come true either.

***

Panzerboy struggled to make sense of his surroundings. He was in musty, hot darkness and he rose up and down like a ship on an angry sea. It took a few moments to realize that he was slung across the back of a horse-thing and his head was covered with a stifling hood. His thoughts were a maddening, confused jumble, mixing outrage, anger, surprise, fear, apprehension and a dozen other emotions into an uneasy stew in his gut.

Keiju voices babbled in his ears, but he couldn’t make out words over the sound of trotting hooves. They were probably taking him off to torture or human sacrifice or cannibalism or whatever the savages on this world did — it didn’t matter where you were, there were always brutal ferals who didn’t know their place and didn’t recognize their betters when they saw them.

But they caught you, little boy, echoed a voice in his head, and to his indignation it sounded just like Marla. If they’re inferior brutal ferals, what does that make you?

Panzerboy gritted his teeth. It wasn’t really Marla. It was that stupid little voice in his head that always told him what a loser he was, no matter how well his life was going, no matter what success he had. Deep down in his gut it dwelled like a nasty little gnome, ready to jump up and explain to him that he was really a phony, that his songs were all stolen from other people, that his guitar playing was just because of Chandler’s fucking magic spells, that Marla was with him just to use him, like all the other uppity bitches who thought they could be just like men…

Shit.

Gordon was going to be really pissed off now.

IV: The White Citadel

“Are we there yet?” Anna asked, trying not to be overly petulant. However they’d been flying for over an hour and her butt was starting to hurt.

Athramar inclined its great head, pointing. Below them stood a circle of six tall trees that looked like aspen, but far taller. In the center was a battlemented keep crafted of white stone.

“Oh my God,” she shouted. “Is that…”

That was about all she could get out before Athramar folded its wings, lowered its massive horned head and the world dropped away. Another fist of g-forces pressed her back in the saddle, clinging for dear life despite the harness.

Down on the keep a crowd of figures had gathered, growing rapidly larger and larger until Athramar ceased its breakneck descent, leveled out quickly and landed with a graceful flourish on the broad, round roof.

Though it was a relief to have something solid under her feet Anna swayed a bit as she dismounted, not noticing the welcoming committee that approached until it was practically on top of her.

“Celestial One!” Once more, words in another language that Anna’s brain translated for her echoed. “We have only just received word of your coming, and of our victory! Please accept our humble thanks, and our gratitude to benevolent Äiti Taivaan, Mother of Heaven.”

“Uh, you’re welcome?” Anna still didn’t have much of a response, given how epic the speech sounded.

The speaker was a particularly tall and almost emaciated-looking elf whose features and manner suggested enormous age. So old, in fact, that his face looked downright alien, with both human-seeming mouth and nose coupled with slightly oversized eyes, high cheekbones and pointed ears that were almost vulpine in appearance. He was dressed in elaborate green and gold robes, and bore a white carved staff. As Anna watched, he turned to the dragon and bowed respectfully.

“Hail, Ancient One. Long have you slumbered, but the gods have awakened you, and you come in our time of need, bearing the prophesized Celestial One.”

Anna tried not to stumble when she heard the words. Prophesized? Oh, Jesus. What the hell had she stepped into?

***

The old one was Master Vanakhotka’lehtiä, and by his estimation his age was somewhere around 3,000 years. Given that she had no idea how long a local year was, Anna didn’t know what that translated to, but it was clearly a very, very long time. She received introductions from a bunch of others, variously clad in rich robes, fine black and silver armor, or in battered camouflaged robes and vaguely Robin Hood-looking hiking outfits. These last bore bows and swords, and looked utterly badass, with scars and tattoos. One of them, a woman with a weathered face and a wary thousand-yard stare, wore a necklace of ears, some of which looked human. Anna remembered her name at least — Susikäärme. Anna decided just to call her Suzi.

The castle, it turned out was called Linakévalkoinen, which meant “White Citadel.” The rhythm and logic of the world’s agglutinative/fusional language was starting make sense, even as her brain automatically translated. Within a few moments, Anna was almost at the point where she honestly couldn’t tell whether she was speaking in English or not.

The stronghold felt like an arcane place, Tardis-like in volume and, according to Master Vanakhotka, well hidden from the rest of the world by a complex net of magical spells and arcane illusion. She could see it, they told her, because she bore the blessings of the gods, and had arrived on a legendary sacred flying beast.

The population consisted of several hundred silver-haired, pale green-skinned individuals, who called themselves keijukainen, which unsurprisingly translated as “elves.” They were tall, ethereally beautiful, lithe, large-eyed, aloof… All that stuff that Tolkien had led her to believe, and that so contradicted the Victorians and their little faerie-elves flitting from flower to flower and sipping from dewdrops. This folk was plainly inhuman, and they regarded her with mixed wonder and surprise, as if shocked that their promised savior was a mere human.

Vanakhotka and a small group of older elves ushered her into a chamber, where a table had been set with glass pitchers of variously-colored liquids and fruits that she didn’t recognize, but which looked yummy nonetheless. She sat in a high-backed wooden chair and tried to regain her bearings.

The chamber had a big set of glass double doors that opened onto a high balcony, affording a view of the tall trees that surrounded the citadel. It was late afternoon, and patchy sunlight shone through the branches.

One of the elves poured some amber-colored liquid into an elegant glass flute and offered it to her. Accepting it, she took a sip. It was cold, cold wine, and damned good wine at that, but then again, she expected no less. Once more Professor Tolkien had laid the foundation for this visit, and she silently whispered thanks to the old guy.

Vanakhotka sat opposite her and fixed her with an intense, grey-eyed gaze.

“How much do you know of the crisis we face, Celestial One?”

“Call me Anna,” she replied. “’Celestial One’ just sounds way too formal. I’m afraid I’ve been away for a very long time, Master. Just pretend I’m a child and start at the beginning.”

He nodded. “Very well.”

He proceeded to weave a story that was succinct and straightforward, but also wondrous, and to Anna’s ears, downright familiar. Their world, Valtakimmäinen, was divided among twelve races of kindred Kindred — humans, elves, dwarves, lizard men, centaurs, fauns and others — who had fought for millennia, until the coming of a mysterious prophet known only as Vaeltaja the Wanderer, who foretold the coming of a Dark Lord, and also promised that deliverers would come as well. The elves, being the oldest, proudest and wisest of Valtakimmäinen’s Kindred (at least according to themselves), had seen much of this in prophetic dreams, and knew that the Celestial One would awaken the most ancient dragon and fly to deliver her people when the time was right. Vanakhotka skipped over the part that the Celestial One was supposed to be an elf, but Anna managed to read between the lines. If the old guy was willing to let that prophecy slide, so was she.

“So I take it the Dark One has come?”

“He has, Anna. He is a sorcerer, and he won the allegiance of the jarreks, the cold-blooded Kindred of the rivers and swamps. He brought his own army of creatures, twisted horrors who feed upon corpses. They are the syövillä kuolleiden — the eaters of the dead.”

Uh-oh. “Tall, gangly things with faces like dog-skulls and long, dirty claws? They burrow and hunt in packs?”

“Yes, Anna. You know of these creatures?”

She nodded. “We call them ghul. They’re not all evil, but most of them are. And I suspect these are worse than most. They come from… From another world. Who is the Dark One? Do you know where he came from, how he got here?”

“We do not. He is outwardly human, but he commands great powers. Our spies tell us that he has raised a great fortress, and in its heart lies a great broken stone that he is rebuilding, assembling from shattered fragments. Already it is nearly complete, and we believe that it is a key to absolute power. Power even the united Kindred cannot defeat.”

The wine suddenly felt flat and tasteless. “Does he have a name?”

“We call him Kuningsväro, the Dark King. His minions only call him master. He has human followers as well, and they call him ‘Gordon.’”

“Shit.”

“I’m sorry, Celestial One? What did you say?”

She faltered. “Uh, I said, ‘Is that so?’ in my native tongue. “Who are the others? The deliverers? What do you know of them?”

Suspicion was growing, and she hoped it was correct.

Vanakhotka smiled. “There is the Celestial One, of course. Then there is the Stranger, whose face speaks of sadness, and who goes clad in black, bearing a sword given him by the Mother of Heaven. There is the Champion, who laughs at death and is accompanied by his faithful companion, the Ebon Hound. There is the Priestess, a woman dark of mien bearing sacred marks on her skin, touched by the Mother, wielder of twin silver blades. Last is the Paladin, a young man who wields great power but knew it not. It is said that of these the Paladin was the greatest, for his goodness was untouched by the evils of the world, and his powers were as great as his own faith in himself.”

She swallowed hard, and once more tried to speak in a calm and assured manner. “I know these deliverers. They’re coming, or they’re already here. It is imperative that we find them before the enemy does. I came with the Champion, the Paladin and the Hound, but I was separated from them on the way. I don’t know where the Stranger and the Priestess are, but I suspect they’ll be here soon enough.” She nodded toward Susikäärme who stood guard by the door. “Those… those warriors in cloaks, with bows. Are they scouts? Can you send them out to search? It’s vital that we find the others.”

Vanakhotkha turned toward Susikäärme. “Ranger! Summon the metsänvartija and tell them to move heaven and earth to find these deliverers. Our survival depends upon it.”

The scout clutched fist to chest. “I obey, Master.”

Outside it was dark now. Night had fallen as they spoke and Anna hadn’t even noticed.

A day gone. Another day for Chandler to finish piecing that thing together. Where the hell is Alex? Shit, where the hell is anyone?

As she sat in silence, contemplating the story that Vanakhotka had told, a male ranger appeared, striding past the spear-armed guards and into the chamber without a word, eyes fixed on Vanakhotka.

He saluted. “Master. We have captured one of the enemy. It was a human, leading a scouting party of syövillä. He is being brought here now.”

Vanakhotka stood, pushing his chair back. “Corpse-eaters? Did any escape?”

A cruel smile twisted the ranger’s scarred face.

“No, Master. None draw breath.”

“Good. Have the prisoner brought to us immediately.”

“I obey.” The ranger vanished as quickly has he had come, having acknowledged no one in the room save Vanakhotka.

Anna and the old elf exchanged glances.

“You’ll want to talk to this one, I assume?” he asked.

She nodded, breaking into her own cruel smile.

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I would.”

They passed the next few minutes in quiet conversation. Anna tried her best not to give too much away — that one of the world’s prayed-for saviors was actually a college student in her 20s, and that her companions worked at a free newspaper in a town best known for its beer and hipster culture didn’t seem like the kind of thing she should share right now.

She focused on the fruits and other viands they’d laid out, once more finding them delicious in both a familiar and exotic way. So far Valtakimmäinen was turning out to be a pretty cool place. As usual however, in her mind anyway, it remained firmly rooted in the “nice place to visit” category.

Despite his outward friendliness, Vanakhotka maintained a chill demeanor when talking about the other Kindred. It became clear that the elves didn’t trust outsiders and had lived in isolation for a very long time, paying only lip service to their oaths and alliances. Vanakhotka’s strategy for dealing with the Dark One seemed rooted in isolationism and the bland assumption that Anna and her friends would use their powers to defend his people while the rest of the world went to hell.

Unfortunately, Anna was going to have to disappoint him, but for the moment she let it slide. The greenish moon was shining through the branches when two rangers arrived, bearing a bound and hooded figure between them. They shoved him roughly into a chair and tied him to it with fine ropes, then one yanked off the hood, revealing a youthful face with a flushed and frightened expression.

“Well, well,” Anna stood and stepped closer. “If it isn’t little Gary Messler. I saw your show at the Selva Oscura. Nice to see you without a guitar in your hand.”

He didn’t recognize her, but anger flashed in his eyes.

“Don’t fucking call me Gary,” he snapped. “No one calls me Gary.”

“Oh, right. You want to be called Panzerboy, don’t you?”

She touched his cheek and he tried to recoil, but failed.

“Well hi, Panzerboy. My name’s Anna. And I’m going to bring holy hell down on your friend Gordon Chandler.”

 

V: Child of the War Machine

 

“You know,” she said, leaning in close, “I was one of those folks who ambushed your buddie at the museum while he was busy terrorizing innocent people. Scared the hell out of him too. Ran like a rabbit. Did he tell you anything about that?”

Gary (she really preferred calling him “Gary”) only glared at her, maintaining a façade of false bravado.

“Stand aside,” said Vanakhotka grimly, stepping forward, brandishing his white staff. “I will deal with this one.”

Anna drew back. “Don’t kill him,” she said, as callously as she could manage. She hated the little fucker, but she didn’t want him dead. Not yet, anyway. “He may be useful.”

The old elf didn’t reply, but fixed Gary with a basilisk stare, eyes hardening and, to Anna’s shock, darkening to indigo, then black.

Vanakhotka’s lips moved and he whispered words that, while only barely audible, rang in her skull like a chorus.

Vastata totta jumalat tai polttaa tuskissaan.

The strange linguistic dissonance returned, like an unfocused image splitting in two. She heard the words, but it took a heartbeat for her brain to translate them.

“Speak true, or by the gods burn in torment.”

A pulse of energy sparked through her, igniting her tattoos and making her head swim. God damn. He really meant it.

“What is your name?” the old elf demanded.

Gary’s face twisted into a sneer.

“Panzerboy.”

It translated to Lapsi’sotakoneiston, or “Child of the War Machine,” which even Anna had to admit sounded pretty damned metal, but the effect on the younger man was both striking and terrifying.

His eyes flared yellow-orange like burning coals and he screamed, writhing in his bonds. To Anna’s relief, it only lasted a second, then the light faded and he slumped, panting.

She’d done something very similar years ago, forcing one of Mimma-Lemnu’s cultists to face the truth of who he was and what he had done. Maybe she’d succeeded, but in the weeks and months that followed she felt wrong and evil every time she remembered. It wasn’t something she especially wanted to do again. And even now, with someone else inflicting the torment, she didn’t feel much better.

“Tell him,” she said, a slight quaver in her voice. “Tell him the truth.”

“Gary,” he said, dejectedly, head down. “Gary Messler.”

Vanakhotka nodded. “Good.” He gestured toward the prisoner. “Ask him. I think he’ll be truthful now.”

Anna blinked away tears. This was torture. There was no other name for it. And she was benefitting from it. God damn it. Fantasy land was not the place for moral crises. It was a place of obvious good and evil, where the good guys rode white horses and the bad guys all dressed in black armor. It wasn’t a place where you were expected to abandon your intrinsic morality for the greater good.

“Where’s Johar?” she asked at last, feeling defeated by circumstance.

“I dunno.” To Anna’s relief, Gary didn’t convulse and scream again. “I think she’s still in Portland, but Gordon was trying to get her to tell him where all the other fragments were. Then he’d probably send a team to go get them. When he had ‘em all he was gonna come back here and put ‘em together. Make the God Machine, or whatever the fuck he called it.”

God Machine. Anna suspected that was Chandler’s name for it — a suitably pretentious name from a pretentious man.

“The other pieces. Are they at his fortress?”

Gary only nodded.

“He’s got ghuls and these people tell me he has lizard men. How many?”

“Dunno. A couple thousand maybe. We lost about a thousand Death Guards when those fucking elves jumped ‘em. The scouts… The ones I was with said there was a dragon too.”

“You don’t say. Does he have any other forces here? Humans? From Earth maybe?”

Gary looked up, eyes pained. “Please. I don’t… Please don’t make me…”

Fires flared up in his eyes again and he cried out through clenched teeth.

Enough. Anna turned angrily on Vanakhotka.

“Turn it off!” she shouted. “Just fucking stop it!”

Surprised, the old elf retreated a step, then quickly gestured with his staff. The fire in Gary’s eyes died and he slumped again.

“I’m sorry, Celestial. I thought you wanted…”

“Not like this, Vanakhotka.” She looked toward the ceiling, letting a tear run down her face. “This isn’t right. It isn’t… It isn’t my way.”

She turned back toward Gary, who raised his head, staring in surprise.

“Jesus, Gary.” She paused. “Panzerboy. I hate this shit. I fucking hate it. I’m not going to do it anymore. But I’m still asking you. Does Chandler have any other troops or weapons besides the ghul and the jarreks? Tell me and you can go. They won’t hurt you anymore.”

A million thoughts and feelings seemed to flash behind Panzerboy’s eyes. God. Was he thinking this was some kind of magical good cop/bad cop act? Was he really the evil fuck that he seemed, and trying to formulate a lie to help his buddy Chandler? Was he just going to shut down, or…

“He’s got humans too. Mean fuckers who don’t like the Kindred,” Panzerboy said softly. “And he’s got others back on earth. Militia types. Skinheads. Boots and braces, red lace boys. The whole thing. He started with a hundred or so. Probably more now. He said he’d bring ‘em through if the locals didn’t straighten up and fly right. Said he’d ‘teach them to respect their betters.’”

Oh shit.

“Weapons?”

Panzerboy nodded. “Assault rifles, machine guns, antitank shit, grenades. All that. They can’t bring vehicles though. The portals are too small. They can only take one at a time. When he gets back and sees what happened to the Death Guard he’s gonna bring in the mercs for sure. He said he wanted this place ‘pacified’ before we started the machine. He didn’t understand why they weren’t very happy to see him. Really pissed him off, I guess. Now he’s probably gonna kill all of ‘em.” There was a brief softening of his expression, a vague and distant awakening, as if he was finally realizing what he was truly saying. “He calls it Operation Säuberung. But I don’t want that. I just wanted to be left alone. You gotta believe me.”

Anna nodded. She wasn’t sure whether she believed him or not, but the news was too dire to ignore.

She looked back at Vanakhotka. “Take him someplace. Keep him comfortable. Give him food and water and a place to sleep. But keep him under guard and don’t let him leave.”

Vanakhotka nodded and gestured at the rangers who had brought Panzerboy in.

“Take him.”

They unbound Panzerboy’s legs and led him out, arms still bound. He moved very slowly, and at the door he shot a glance back at Anna. She returned it without expression.

“You heard?” she asked.

“Yes.” Vanakhotka frowned. “I didn’t understand much of what he said. But it sounds as if the Dark King is bringing more warriors and powerful weapons.”

“Yeah. That’s one way of saying it.” Anna slumped into a chair. How long had it been since she’d slept?

“You’re weary,” said Vanakhotka. “We’ve had chambers prepared.”

It was the same story — a desperate situation that required urgent response, but her body didn’t let her go on. Reluctantly, Anna allowed herself to be led to a suite of rooms, shed her armor and collapsed into the softness of the bed, only barely registering her surroundings. Sleep was instant and dreamless.

It was early the next morning when reports arrived that Susikäärme’s scouts had found someone who might be the Stranger, sending Anna hastening to the roof where Athramar awaited her.

And the rest, as they said, was history.

 

Alex

Fortunately, Anna did manage to keep my mind of falling to my death on the way to the citadel. We had arrived and moved to her chambers by the time she finished, and I’d already had my introduction to the other keijukainen. My pronunciation was apparently awful; I finally gave up and followed Anna’s lead, simply calling them “elves.”

Though they treated Anna with enormous deference as she led me from the battlemented roof to her rooms, they regarded me with the fascination that humans normally reserve for a chimp who can ride a bicycle. By the time Anna shut the door and bade me sit I was downright relieved.

She’d also filled me in on her adventures with Loren and Rob at Marla Drake’s studio, and of her separation from them. I told her about our somewhat inept rescue of Dr. Johar and Matt Riddari, noting that I still wasn’t even sure they’d made it out of the ghoul warren alive.

“Well gee, Alex,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “I sure hope they did, or else we’re pretty much screwed, aren’t we?”

I didn’t have much response to that. We were separated and had no way of communicating. If we got out of this mess alive I was going to seriously consider installing cell towers all across Valtakimmäinen.

“Loren and Rob went through the gateway when I did,” Anna said. “I got sidetracked by She Who Watches, but they must be here somewhere. We’re not going to be able to do much for Mia and Johar, so we need to find those two.”

“Sounds like a plan. Where should we start?”

“The rangers are out looking right now,” Anna said. “I can also talk to Vanakhotka and see if he has any ideas. I don’t know this place and neither do you, so we can’t just go out and start blundering around, so I think we should sit tight for now. Besides, you look like hell. As usual.”

She was right of course. I was weary and the battering I’d taken in the ghoul tunnels had begun to take its toll in the form of aches and pains in a majority of my bones and muscles.

“Get some rest,” she said, waving a hand toward the bed, which instantly looked incredibly comfortable and welcoming. “I’ll wake you if we find anything.”

“Yeah.” I didn’t need any further encouragement. I let my coat drop to the floor and clambered into the bed. She’d fallen asleep right away, she’d said. I could well understand why. Too bad we couldn’t import hand-crafted elven furniture back to Earth…

 

Marla

Gordon P. Chandler’s return to Valtakimmäinen was anything but triumphant. Still dealing with survivors, their reports of dragons and Kashaptu, and the disturbing reports that Panzerboy’s scouting party was missing, Marla was delivered the unwelcome news that the portal was coming alive, presaging the arrival of their lord and master. Head filled with confusion and portents of disaster she hastened belowground to where the dome-shaped chamber housed the crystalline structure that served as this world’s end of her arcane rapid-transit system. Two Dead One cultists stood guard, clutching spears and staring in awe.

Indeed it was glittering and flashing with greenish energy, and as she watched it flared to white-hot brilliance, disgorging a dusty and disheveled figure clutching a pentagonal stone tablet. Chandler stumbled as he came through, dropping the tablet and letting his now-filthy fedora tumble to the ground. He was on his feet quickly, face flushed.

“Close it!” he shouted. “Close the damned thing! Now!

Marla and the ghuls all stood frozen in place for a moment. Rage contorted Chandler’s features. He turned, then threw himself at the crystal, pulling loose a part of the stand and kicking furiously. The metal brace came away and the big crystal collapsed, green light fading.

“There!” Chandler snarled. “Let the Dead Ones feast on you, you treacherous bastard!”

He fell silent for a moment, drawing a long, deep breath. Forcibly calm, he gathered up his hat and the tablet, which lay on the floor beside him.

Marla finally managed to move, hastening to his side and taking the heavy tablet from him. Its wire frame had survived the fall, keeping it in one piece, but one chunk of stone remained missing.

“Good God, Gordon. What the hell happened?”

“That bastard from the museum,” he muttered, ignoring the two ghul and striding indignantly from the chamber. He was losing the battle to stay calm, but that was par for the course. “He and some wild African bitch managed to turn Matt. He betrayed us, told them where we were. They found us and almost got the tablet. Half-breed bastards. By God there’ll be a reckoning. Mark my words, Marla. There will be a reckoning on all men and women who forget their race and heritage.”

Marla knew better than to interrupt, but just let him rant. Through his outraged, snarling narrative, frequently interrupted by oaths of vengeance and curses against race traitors and everyone else Chandler didn’t like, she managed to get the story. The swordsman from the museum — alternately called Nomeus and “The Shepherd” along with a black woman — had raided the Lake Oswego ghul tunnels, freed Naomi Johar and the treasonous Matt Riddari, forcing Chandler to flee with the still-incomplete tablet. His destruction of the gateway would take time to repair, but he hoped it had stranded his foes on the other side, where a horde of raging ghouls would take care of them once and for all.

After a while, as they made their way toward the God Machine’s chamber, Chandler finally regained some composure, though he lost none of his venom.

“Ironic, wouldn’t you say, that a descendant of African cannibals would meet her end at the hand of truly cannibalistic creatures like my ghul[_?_] Unless of course they reject her flesh as unclean. Certainly it’s what I would have done in their stead, but who’s to say, Marla? Who’s to say?”

At length they reached the stone gallery where the pieces of the God Machine had been assembled. Chandler set the tablet on a stand beside the other completed ones and looked on them with satisfaction.

“One tiny piece missing,” he said. “It’s of no consequence, not really. Eleven of twelve complete and intact, with only a single tablet missing a small fragment. There will be challenges, to be sure. But the ancient volumes say that we can control it. Consider it, Marla. The end of our long journey lies just ahead.”

He turned. He was his old self now, save for looking as if he’d been in a bar fight.

“So tell me, Marla” he asked, smiling jauntily. “How have things been going in my absence? Well, I trust?”

VI: Life’s Right Way Opened

Mia

Stealth missions were not Mia’s forte. A short black woman with a flat top and facial scars who normally dressed in leather jacket and combat boots wasn’t the sort of person who could easily avoid notice. And now, accompanied by a towering, ruggedly handsome Nordic male who looked like Thor after he had aged gracefully, she felt even more conspicuous. Of course, it was almost midnight at the Portland International Airport, where lots of exotic types mingled and crossed paths. She had at least tried to dress conventionally, in jeans and a black hoodie over one of Loren’s stupid t-shirts (this one read The box said I needed Windows 7 or better, so I installed Linux) but it didn’t make waiting by the luggage carousel and pretending to inspect the incoming suitcases any easier.

The former Matt Riddari, now known as Tom Cottman, was there as well, sitting on a bench beside nearby, looking pale and miserable. They’d relieved him of keys, wallet and cell phone — the last they’d dumped into the Willamette, since Chandler and the Theódenhold were certain to have it rigged with every single tracking app known to man. They’d rounded up pants, kicks and a battered-looking PSU sweatshirt as well and were keeping him close at hand. So far he’d done nothing suspicious, save eat and mope quietly.

Naomi Johar, dressed in one of Anna’s suits and acting discreet, was the most inconspicuous member of the trio, so she stepped quietly into the security area and casually opened her locker. Mia’s heart was running like a greyhound for the few moments that Johar was out of sight as she pointedly remembered that none of them were armed. Bringing twin kukris to the airport seemed like a bad idea, but she and Arngrim could fight barehanded if needed, and she doubted that Chandler’s cultists would pull anything, and they probably didn’t even know the fragment was here.

Even when Naomi reappeared, walking briskly from the security area toward them and nodding briefly, Mia’s unease didn’t dissipate. Arngrim was cool as ever and fell in step immediately behind Naomi. Mia gestured at Tom to follow; he rose and shuffled along without enthusiasm.

Tom remained an unknown quantity. She trusted him as much as she trusted the average ghul, which was to say not at all. No matter what the guy had gone through, she wasn’t about to cut the drooling sycophant of a racist author any slack. Maybe poor Tom was lost, maybe his heroes had abandoned him and he was in the hands of his enemies, but for the moment Mia had little to no sympathy.

Their ride was ahead. They’d chosen not to drive Yngwie, as the big classic Camaro was way too obvious and probably known to the enemy. Arngrim had come in a big black SUV (Mia chose not to ask how he’d gotten it), and this was waiting for them in a parking spot that overlooked the airport road, bright with lights of oncoming and departing cars.

They’d said hardly a word since departing, and now as they settled in and Anrgim fired up the engine there was a palpable sense of relief.

“Everything go okay?” Mia asked Johar and got a curt nod in reply.

She held up a small parcel wrapped in brown paper. “The package was where I left it. But now we have it, what’s next?”

Arngrim grunted. “We’ve some small measure of leverage now. The tablet will function with a few pieces missing, though not at full capacity. This fragment will maintain a connection to the larger tablet, and we might be able to use that to find where this fool Chandler has taken it.”

“I know where he went.” Tom’s voice was faint but certain. “You saw him go through the painting. It’s connected to… Well, to another world.”

“I gathered as much.” Arngrim guided the SUV into the northbound lane and blended with traffic, still heavy despite the late hour. “One of the worlds that the original tablets came from. What do you know of the place, boy?”

Tom winced at the word, but continued. “Total fantasy world. Like what I write about. Called Valtakimanen or something like that. Everything’s there — elves, fae, centaurs, demons. Probably dragons too for all I know. Gordon thought that there was some old contact with the place thousands of years ago, and that’s where some of our legends come from. Their language is like Finnish, which isn’t related to any other mainstream European languages, so he thinks that some Finns and Laplanders still have some blood relation to the other world.” He hung his head. “He never let me go there, though. That was for his besties, like Marla and Gary. Some of his Nazi boys too, I guess. He has some kind of army he’s been building to take over here when the time comes, but he always said that if the elves and faeries didn’t behave, he’d let his boot boys run wild over there for practice.”

“Shit.” Mia shook her head. “Chandler and his goddamned thugs. Neo-Nazis?”

“Yeah.” Tom didn’t seem to have any fight left in him. “Chandler kept telling us they were just misunderstood.”

“Fuck that. And he’s sending them to fantasy-land to use elves for target practice?”

“I dunno. That’s just what he kept telling us. He and Marla went there and back all the time.”

“They went through the paintings.” Dr. Johar’s voice was stern. She’d evidently recovered from her ordeal with surprising speed, but Mia knew that appearances could be deceiving. “Like the ones they took me through to find the other fragments. They never took me to this other world either, but I heard them talking about it. I think it was their base of operations.”

Tom nodded. “They went through that last painting. The one your friend went through.” He paused and laughed without humor. “You know? The one you just blew up?”

“Goddamn it.” Mia clenched her hands into fists. “Is there any other way of getting there?”

“I might be able to help,” Arngrim said. “With the fragment — ”

“There’s no way you can do that, even with the fragment.” Tom shook his head. “It took Gordon and Marla years to figure out how to turn the paintings into gateways. Books, rituals, spells… God. There’s no way we can duplicate what they did. There’s no time.”

Arngrim’s face hardened. “Don’t underestimate me, boy. I have resources you can’t imagine.”

Tom chuckled, again without amusement, momentarily slipping back into arrogant author mode. “Oh yeah? Did you buy a book of spells at Powell’s or something, Mister Viking?”

Arngrim’s face hardened. “Do you know who I am, boy?”

Tom swallowed hard, looking suddenly contrite. “No. I don’t. But I’m… I’m sorry. I don’t want to get on your bad side.”

“You already are, boy. You and your master.” The big Viking’s voice dropped down low, but still rumbled through the sound of the engine and the traffic around them. “I’m human now. But I wasn’t always. I have lived on this world for millennia, since my people and I were summoned to aid in a war. We were called the Fallen. We came, fleeing the world we’d helped destroy, and our lives since then have been naught but blood and sorrow, until at last we met the Shepherd. Alex St. John. And my blessed descendant, Annabelle Lee Moore. They brought us a chance at redemption, my Fallen and I. Many perished, but they perished with their sins forgiven, giving their immortal lives to nourish and save a lost world. Their spirit lives on in that world and this. And I, the last of the Fallen, seek to undo the evil that we did. Do you understand, boy?”

“I…” Tom faltered. “I don’t…”

“In days gone by I rode with Crusaders, ravaging the land. I fought at Agincourt, standing beside King Harry. I fought and killed both for and against the Hapsburgs, and for the English in America. I wore grey and rode in your own Civil War, raiding, looting, burning, while better and nobler men than I shed their blood to set others free. And when war came to Europe, I wore feldgrau, crawling in the muddy trenches in 1914, then commanded a battalion of Tiger tanks in the 33rd SS Panzer Division. Do you know of us, boy? We were called the Totenkopf. The deaths-heads. Concentration camp guards came from my division. The Soviets cut us to pieces at Kursk and we limped our way back to Germany to wait for the end. You know of these things, boy?”

Tom nodded. “A little bit. I’ve read some…”

“I’m sure you have.” Though his voice remained hard, Arngrim drove with aplomb. Mia was glad that a life time that lasted a couple millennia or so had at least taught him not to drive angry. “I wore a skull on my collar tab and saluted, shouting Heil Hitler along with all the other murderous, ignorant fools. And now they shout it again. Their words are different now, but their foul hearts are the same. I’m sure your master harbors a deep respect for men like me who wore the black and killed without compunction. Mighty warriors. Proud Aryans. Champions of purity and honor? Does that sound familiar? Did he write heroic tales of their bravery? Were his heroes like them in all but name? Is he like them in all but name?”

Tom didn’t respond. Dr. Johar looked on with interest — no doubt she could feel the raw hostility radiating from Arngrim.

“Well, listen well, boy. There was nothing honorable, nothing proud, nothing glorious in what we did. I was a thousand years old, boy, yet I had learned neither truth nor humility. I fought for who I fought for and gave no thought to the cause. Those who surrounded me were fanatics — murderers, rapists, child-killers. It was not until years later that I finally came to terms with what we had done, and realized that for all my crimes, I was not like them!

Tom’s head was down and Mia wasn’t sure whether he was crying or not. Certainly he didn’t seem inclined to reply, but only listened as Arngrim’s ancient voice filled the interior of the SUV.

“Long ago I met a man. A good man. A holy man. Together we fought to end an ancient evil, and in doing so we broke the tablet that your master so desperately seeks. His name was Cynewulf, and he spoke mighty words — words that are to your master’s as the words of a holy prophet to a foolish child. Wondrous that victory-beam – and I stained with sins, with wounds of disgrace. I saw glory’s tree!”

The big Norseman’s hands were tight on the wheel, his knuckles pale, yet still he drove on. Was he speaking to Tom, Mia wondered, or to himself? Perhaps, she thought, it was both. A man who had seen a thousand years of sin and now fought for redemption. Perhaps, such a man could see those for whom there was still hope.

 

[I shook when that man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty king,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that man’s side, after ghost he gave up.]

 

The rage in Arngrim’s manner faded as he spoke. His hands relaxed on the steering wheel, and his voice grew calm, until he sounded as if he was reciting a humble prayer.

 

[Now you may know, loved man of mine,
what I, work of baleful ones, have endured
of sore sorrows. Now has the time come
when they will honor me far and wide,
men over earth, and all this great creation,
will pray for themselves to this beacon. On me God’s son
suffered awhile. Therefore I, glorious now,
rise under heaven, and I may heal
any of those who will reverence me.
Once I became hardest of torments,
most loathly to men, before I for them,
voice-bearers, life’s right way opened.]

 

They drove in silence for a time, at last peeling off I-84 and into the Woodstock neighborhood.

“A thousand years ago and more he said those words, and in my heart have they echoed evermore. I raised a cross for that man, a cross that still stands. Yet I could not repay him in a thousand times a thousand years for his words. Those words that only now do I fully understand. When I gazed into the face of that holy man, that Cynewulf Olfinnson, that Saxon, that monk, I saw a friend that I never dreamed to see again. Not until I gazed with love and sorrow at the woman who was my kin, and at the men and women who stood beside me in the last battle. You think your master is a good man, boy? You think that the hatred that he teaches is wisdom? If that is so, you’re an even bigger fool than ever he was.”

Tom looked up, wide-eyed. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

“As well you should be. Now if you know anything… Anything… about how that sodden idiot and his friends got to Valtakimmäinen, tell me. What did he plan? When was it to happen?”

“I don’t know! He never deigned to share his plans with me. All I knew was that he was going to have all the power he’d ever wanted and do something with it. He kept talking about the Transit, whatever the hell that was.”

“Anything else? Anything at all?”

Tom paused for a long moment before replying.

“Arngrim…” The man’s voice was tentative, fearful, as if he was about to reveal a great secret that would tie him for good and all to Chandler’s enemies.

“Yes?”

“There are other paintings. They made five or six of them. They’re at places where Chandler was gathering his Theódenhold troopers. I think there’s one at Marla’s studio. I heard them talking about it, but I’ve never been there.”

“You know the address?” Mia demanded, pulling out her phone and opening the map application.

“No, but it’s on her website. www.marladrakeartist.com.”

Mia opened a browser and typed in the URL, swearing as she mistyped or the phone tried to autocomplete for her.

“I think that Alex and I are always grateful,” she said as the website loaded, showing a smiling picture of Marla Drake, along with contact information including her address in southeast Portland, “that you people just don’t understand good security.”

***

The studio door was locked and sealed with a security lock and Crime Scene stickers. Mia felt a sinking feeling as Arngrim dealt with the locks and quietly let them in. Jesus. Even if there was a painting here would it be ruined or in a police evidence locker?

They’d made a quick stop at Smith house to change into more practical garb and get supplies, then hastened to the studio, creeping in with as much stealth as they could manage. No lights came on or alarms went off, so they’d at least made it this far. Whether it was a wasted trip or not remained to be seen.

She discreetly shone her phone’s flashlight around the studio. It looked as if a bomb had gone off — furniture was shattered, tables overturned, paint and ink spilled, pictures shredded, and there was a mass of dried black crud on the floor that might have been blood, but if so, someone had apparently butchered an elephant here. She noted scorch marks on the walls.

“I think Anna was here,” she said. “Probably with Loren and Rob.”

She shone the light at the floor and saw a trail of footprints in spilled paint — two sets were big and one was smaller. Among them trailed the pawprints of a good-sized dog.

“Yeah,” she said. “They were here all right. Beowulf too.”

Tom pointed to the wall, where a series of paintings hung, askew but mostly intact — dragons, warriors, a naked female satyr. At the end was a familiar portrayal of a sylvan glade illuminated by pale greenish light.

“That’s it,” he said. “That’s the painting. It’s just like the one Marla made for Gordon in the tunnels.”

Arngrim stepped toward the picture. “Johar. Give me the fragment.”

Naomi reached into the package and withdrew a chunk of broken grey rock. It was perhaps the size of a playing card, covered with the odd runes from Arngrim’s world, like the Ravenglass Fragment but smaller.

The Norseman accepted the stone and held it out to the picture. A faint stirring of green motes swirled around them, weaving connecting threads.

“This is it,” he said. “It’s drawn to its brothers.”

“Good,” Mia breathed. “Now do you know how to use it?”

Arngrim nodded. “I think so. Give me a few moments.”

Mia sat down on the battered remnants of a couch, feeling the weight of her kukris beside her, and of the MP5k strapped under her utility jacket. The stubby automatic rifle didn’t reassure her much — she had three 20-round mags, and even if every round scored a hit, it wouldn’t do much to stem the tide of a horde of charging ghul. Her knives were a hell of a lot more reliable, and they didn’t run out of ammo. Naomi and Tom were unarmed — her because she didn’t know how to shoot and him because despite the aid he’d given she still didn’t trust him with a firearm.

Arngrim’s moments dragged by like hours as they sat, all eyes fixed on the now-sparkling greenish fragment, now resting on the floor, and the stream of sparks that danced between it and the painting.

“It’s been used recently,” Arngrim said softly. “Within the last day or two. I feel… Yes, I feel the hand of Belt-Ili. I think she came this way. Anna.”

Both relief and worry coursed through Mia at the big man’s words. Relief that Anna had been here and had left through the portal, and worry about what had become of her on the other side.

“I think I can… yes.” Arngrim’s voice took on a triumphant tone. “Yes. It is done.”

Green light radiated from the picture, and a gleaming circle formed. The doorway beckoned.

“Quickly now,” Arngrim urged. “I don’t know how long it will remain open.”

Mia moved toward the portal. Alex and the others had been to other worlds, but so far she had experienced other realities only in dreams and the minds of others. Now at last…

“Listen!” Tom’s urgent voice cut through Mia’s thoughts. “Someone’s out there!”

Loud voices echoed from the hallway and the door handle turned. Shit. She’d forgotten to lock it behind them.

In a single motion, Mia unzipped her coat and brought the rifle up.

The door swung open to reveal a trio of figures illuminated in the green light of the portal. A big, hairless man in a white t-shirt cargo pants and red straight-laced Doc Martens led two shorter, young-looking men clad in black jackets with various patches. The big man’s face was covered with tattoos, and among them, even in the dim light, Mia could see the numbers “14/88” on his forehead, and an interwoven triangular knot on one cheek. All three of them bore holstered pistols, and the two black-jackets carried baseball bats.

Their new friends hadn’t been expecting company, and fortunately their gazes first fell on the glowing portal and then on Arngrim, looming in the green light, the fragment clutched in his hand. It took less than a heartbeat for the big Norseman to read the situation and realize what was happening.

“Greetings, brothers!” Arngrim exclaimed, striding toward them, throwing up a perfect Nazi salute. “I’m Gruppe-Hauptmann Arngrim Drachensohn. I was told to meet you men here.”

The lead skinhead looked initially confused, then relaxed and returned the salute.

Heil,” he said and grinned. “I’m K-Bar. Glad you didn’t start the party without us, man.”

Arngrim grinned broadly. “This isn’t a party. It’s a movement.”

“Truth, brother!” K-Bar gestured at his companions. “Gruppe-Hauptmann, meet Chuck and Trevor. True believers.”

The two men nodded respectfully and followed K-Bar through the door.

Their luck didn’t last more than a few seconds. As he stepped into the room, the one called Trevor looked toward Mia, where she stood beside Johar and Tom. Even in the greenish light it was clear — she was black, female and armed with an automatic rifle.

“Hey K!” Trevor exclaimed, falling back and fumbling for his sidearm. “What the fuck is this —”

Arngrim’s fist was a blur, sweeping from left to right, catching K-Bar on the point of the chin and spinning his head violently. The big man fell like a bag of cement, slumping senseless to the floor, but Arngrim remained in motion, knocking aside Trevor’s pistol with one palm while pounding his temple with the other. Trevor slammed against the wall and slid to the floor. Without an instant’s hesitation Arngrim slammed his fist into Chuck’s face, felling a third bootboy in as many seconds.

Trevor was still barely conscious, moaning feebly. A second blow to the head dispatched him and all three now lay insensible.

Mia stared in wide-eyed wonder. She hadn’t even reached for the safety on her rifle.

“Oh Jesus.” Tom stood, staring along with Mia. “Oh, holy fuck.”

“Nothing holy about it,” Arngrim replied, looking distinctly unhappy. “We need to go. Now.”

“Are they dead?” Tom asked, voice trembling.

Arngrim shook his head. “No. I do not kill. I fight only to protect myself and my companions. I will kill no living thing. Never again.”

He picked up the stone. “Go quickly. Others will follow. Once we’ve passed through I think I can close this portal, for a time at least. Hurry.”

Mia swallowed hard, slung her rifle, zipped her coat and strode toward the portal.

Here goes, she thought. No turning back now.

 

 

 

 

VII: Säuberung

Marla

Gordon’s rage had lasted a couple of hours, waxing and waning as it went, until finally he settled down into his usual mode of outwardly calm irritation, most often typified by a sour expression and easily-provoked sarcasm. She’d gotten used to it.

Now that his temper was down to an even simmer, she could oversee the task of rebuilding the crystal portal without his periodic interference and demands for progress reports. It had taken more than a day, even with the Death Guard working continuously, and only now was the great stone returning to life.

The portal wasn’t necessary for transportation of course. All the other gates she’d built were one-way however, and without the proper invocations they led to places outside the fortress. If that Nomeus asshole whom Gordon hated so much had indeed arrived through one of her portals, there was no telling where he’d come through, and so far all their searches had turned up were frightened rumors about dragons and winged Valkyries, as well as whispered tales from the lumpen proletariat out in the forests that a great deliverer had come at last. That this supposedly fulfilled some childish prophecy came as no surprise to Marla — every damned savage in every damn filth-strewn mud hut had his own legend about a savior who would kill all the white people and set them free.

Perhaps she was simply parroting Gordon’s confused racial ideology, she thought as she adjusted a small gemstone set in a metal frame near the big crystal. But he wasn’t far wrong, and his views seemed to be the most in harmony with her own. There were differences of course, but she was always careful not to draw attention to them, lest Gordon throw another one of his tantrums or banish her as a “traitress.” He loved using words like “traitress.”

“I see that we’re nearing completion.”

Speak of the devil. Gordon strode into the chamber, accompanied by a guard of grim-faced ghul. He’d had time to clean up and was now his old self, conspicuously clad in black, his fedora perched flawlessly atop his balding head. He was very particular about how he looked. It fit into the whole “real-life supervillain” persona that he was so proud of. And his fan-boys just ate it up with a spoon.

She stood up, wiping her hands on a towel at her waist. “Yes. I think we’re almost ready to go again. You need to head soon?”

Gordon chuckled. “Oh no, not by any means. I’ve decided to stay here until the Transit. I’ve sent word back home to gather the Theódenhold and prepare for battle. After that fiasco at Stone River I think it’s time to teach the indigenes a lesson in manners, don’t you?”

It took a moment for Marla to comprehend what he was saying. “Are you suggesting…?”

Gordon nodded, smiling thinly. “Operation Säuberung. I’d say it’s long overdue.”

Oh crap. Here came the flood. Säuberung. It meant “cleansing”, more or less. As in “ethnic cleansing.” And Gordon was a huge advocate, especially if the locals didn’t “know their place” in his new order. Nothing like a little random butchery to keep the savages in line.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Gordon.” She tried to sound reasonable. “We’ve been facing some pushback from the locals, but for the most part they’ve kept to themselves. The whole Stone River thing was because we were marching into their territory. We’re secure here in the fortress, we’ve got supplies and an army to defend us, and I think the God Machine Project is more important than pacifying a bunch of angry peasants.”

Gordon took this in and paused, looking contemplative. He always did that to prove that he was a reasonable man. And he always went ahead and did whatever he wanted anyway.

“Marla, you need to understand the dynamics of this situation.” He clasped his hands behind his back and began to walk slowly around the portal, looking it up and down as he went. “A world full of primitives, living in the lowest and filthiest of conditions. Worshipping their pagan gods, engaging in heaven knows what sick perversions and misguided practices. Then we come along. Civilized. Educated. Bringers of light, if you will. Bringers of light to a world lost in darkness and barbarism. These savages, Marla… Once they learn their true place, they will be valuable servants. Like the ghul, Marla. A wretched and debased race if ever there was one, but under our tutelage, what have they become? Our trusted and loyal followers. No, Marla. To let this world’s primitives flaunt our authority, and go as they choose… That is not just a shame. It’s a crime, Marla. They need to see what we can do, and who better to teach them than my loyal Theódenhold? Marla, I do value your input and your advice, but in this case, I must do as my heart urges me, and do the right thing, for both us and these benighted people. Don’t you agree?”

Marla sighed inwardly. It was like every conversation they’d ever had since meeting.

“Of course,” she said. “You’re correct, Gordon. When should we expect your friends to arrive?”

Gordon beamed. “Why as soon as the portal is functional. We can’t have them popping up in little groups all over the place, can we? As soon as it’s working I’ll send word back to earth and the gathering will begin. Then we’ll have an even more substantial force in place by the time of the Transit.”

He turned to go, his ghul guards following after. Then he paused, and looked back over his shoulder.

“And Marla?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks so much for seeing it my way. You’re a very valuable friend. You know that, don’t you?”

She nodded. “Yes, Gordon. I know.”

She waited several moments after Gordon had left before releasing a slow, steady breath, then turned back toward the crystal.

Soon now. Very soon.

 

Loren

Whispers of rebellion grew to loud shouts of defiance in the hills and valleys. In the forests, the kindred races spoke of the Champion, the Paladin and the Ebon Hound. And from further away came stories of dragons, and of the wakening of things that had lived only in legend.

Loren took it all in stride. Hell, he’d been reading this kind of thing practically since infancy, and still vividly remembered each night when his mother would read to him from The Hobbit. Rob, whom the Kindred were proclaiming as their true deliverer (as Champion and loyal hound, Loren and Beowulf were relegated to sidekick-status, which he had to admit took a lot of pressure off), seemed a lot more ill-at-ease, but had so far managed to keep it together, getting up to speed on the Kindred’s war, the coming of the Dark King, the ultimate battle between good and evil, and all that stuff. He looked the most nervous when the various Kindred told him what a vital role he was to play, and that their very lives and the freedom of an entire world depended on him.

At that point Loren usually tried to change the subject.

Right now, the Kindred were in a relatively calm and no-nonsense mood as they all stood over a table with a large parchment map unrolled on it. These were the leaders of the Kindred forces, grizzled veterans all, and none of them seemed in the mood to kowtow or idealize their situation.

“Corpse-eaters are moving into the forests and hills where there is still resistance to the Kuningsväro’s authority.” Vengar thrust a thick finger at a spot on the map. He was a burly human with a thick grey beard, a scarred face and a rough disposition. At first, he had looked at both Loren and Rob as if they were a pair of kindergartners claiming to be Navy Seals, but he’d since come around somewhat. “Previously they came only by night, but there have been raids during the day as well — it seems that they have some means of tolerating sunlight better. They move in parties of 20 to 50, attacking settlements and seizing prisoners, whom they bring back to the Fortress of the Law, held hostage to the Kindred’s good behavior. Anyone who stands against them is instantly slain.”

“Resistance has been sporadic at best,” said Boros, a dwarf warrior in iron mail, who came up to Loren’s chest but was about half again as wide. Yeah, they had dwarves here too, though they were called rautakirves, which roughly meant “Ironaxes.” “The villages are small, and most have no warriors. As word spreads they have simply been surrendering and allowing the corpse-eaters to take hostages.”

“It’s sensible of them,” Vengar said. “There’s no point in wasting lives. It will take warriors to stop them.”

“You want to go take them on?” Rob asked. “Have we got enough troops?”

The kid sounded both engaged and concerned. He was beginning to fit into the role that the Kindred had imposed on him. Or at least, Loren thought, he was getting good at covering up his insecurity. He guessed it was some kind of combination of both, a situation that Loren was all too aware of.

“That’s a very good question, Paladin,” Vengar grunted. “In terms of numbers, no. But the corpse-eaters don’t know the realm and they fight with all the subtlety of a pack of starving wolves. We can certainly outfight and outmaneuver them.”

“Each of my warriors is worth ten of those filthy vermin,” rumbled Boros. “Well, five at any rate.”

“The birds and forest creatures are our best scouts,” said Arussa. Someone had told Loren that the big female centaur was over a century old, but her human portion seemed no more than middle-aged — spare and athletic, a human reflection of the equine body below. He didn’t understand the centaur’s power structure — they seemed matriarchal, with the martially-inclined males forming their armed forces, but it was more complicated than that and he didn’t have the bandwidth to learn more. “My shamans can speak with them, and they will tell us where the corpse-eaters are.”

Vengar considered this. “Good. We can set ambushes. Fall on them before they reach the villages. What do you think, Paladin?”

A look of real discomfort flickered across Rob’s face, but he swiftly suppressed it. He wasn’t happy making life or death decisions, and once more Loren felt a huge amount of sympathy. “I trust your instincts, Vengar. You can hit them on the march, but I think we should evacuate the outlying villages first.”

The others frowned as one. “What do you mean?” Vengar asked.

“I mean we get the villagers out. Pull them deeper into the forest. Bring them here, or to other villages. Have them take whatever they can carry, leave the villages empty. That’ll draw the ghul farther in and give us more time to prepare. And when we do hit them, we can make sure that none of them make it out alive. If their raiding parties all disappear without a trace, the others won’t be so enthusiastic.”

Loren turned to star at Rob in sudden surprise and admiration.

“Jesus. That’s a good idea, Rob.”

Rob rolled his eyes. “I’ve read a lot of history, Loren. World War II. Russia? Scorched earth? You know… aspiring journalist?”

Loren sighed. “Yeah. I’m starting to think you should set your sights higher that just being a reporter, dude.”

Boros looked as the notion of evacuation had never even occurred to him. Maybe it hadn’t. “Your words have merit, Paladin. But these folk have lived there for countless generations. They won’t want to leave.”

Rob didn’t reply immediately. Loren finally cut in.

“It’s that or die, Boros. I can’t put it any stronger than that. Maybe you can wipe out some gouls. Hell, you could push them back, but they’ll come back in force. Maybe not just take prisoners this time — maybe they’ll be looking to get even. Kill everyone. Burn whole villages to the ground. If we can get those people out of the outlying villages like Rob is suggesting, then we have a much better chance at protecting them.”

Rob shot him a relieved glance. That seemed to be how they worked together — Rob made the decisions and Loren backed him up. The Kindred were so convinced of their status as prophesized deliverers the combination usually worked. Loren hoped to God they never did anything to shatter that faith, or things wouldn’t be anywhere near as rosy.

“He’s right, Vengar,” Lilywinter said. She sat beside Loren, accompanied by a trio of sprites — little flying green humanoids with gossamer wings, who periodically buzzed excitedly around her head, chirping at her with voices like tiny insects. “If we enrage the Dark One further, those villagers will be in even greater danger.”

The faun regarding Loren with an expression that told him he could do no wrong. It made him both happy and uncomfortable at the same time, since he had started to really like her, and he wasn’t entirely sure what to do if the prospect of interspecies romance reared its ugly head.

“We can defeat the corpse-eaters.” Vengar nodded emphatically. “But as you say, their numbers are great and more may come. But they can be beaten.”

The little sprites now erupted into a new storm of chirping and chittering.

“My sprites wish to report as well,” Lilywinter said. “They say that there has been a battle at Stone River.”

“A battle?” Vengar demanded. “Between who?”

Lilywinter spoke as the high-pitched cacophony continued. “Between the Kuningsväro’s corpse-eaters and the keijukainen… They say… They say that hundreds of corpse-eaters were slain… and that… that the keijukainen were aided by an awakened dragon and a winged creature in armor.”

That caused a sensation. The room immediately broke into a babble of voices — exclamations, questions, shouts for order.

Loren looked straight at Lilywinter and felt his expression grow deadly serious. The three sprites took notice and hovered over her head, staring back with the same intensity.

“Winged creature?” he asked. “A woman? Red hair? Tattoos?”

The sprites chittered and Lilywinter replied. “They were not there, but the reports were confused. Second- and third-hand. Some say it was an angel, some a demon. No one even agrees whether there was a dragon there.”

Loren bit back a curse. Communications in this world were practically at a stone age level, leaving him and Rob in the dark and frustrated.

“Can we get to these kaiju guys?” he asked.

Keijukainen,” corrected Rob, ever the sticker for correct grammar. “Just call them elves.”

“Whatever. Can we get a message to them? Find out if Anna is with them?”

“I don’t know.” Lilywinter looked doubtful. And the Keijukainen are part of the Kindred, but they have lived separately for generations, and rarely speak to anyone else. They have limited themselves simply to defending their territory and have not participated in the alliance.”

“Well they’re going to have to talk to me.” Loren stood up. “How quickly can we get there?”

“It’s dangerous, Champion,” said Vengar over the confused tide of voices. “We’d have to cross the Dark One’s territory to get to them. And we don’t even know for certain that the Celestial is there. We can’t risk you.”

“If she is there and she’s got a dragon on her side I’d say the risk is damn well worth it,” Loren shot back. “We’ll travel light and fast. How long will it take?”

“Two days at least.” Vengar shook his head. “I don’t advise it, Champion.”

“We’re going,” Loren said. “If she’s there we need to find her. We’ll leave at dawn.”

“I’m coming too,” Rob said in a tone that brooked no argument.

That truly distressed Vengar and the others, and voices were raised in renewed argument.

“You can’t, Paladin.” Boros pounded a fist on the table. “If we lose you…”

“I’m not doing anything here,” Rob said. “Just telling you to do what you were going to do anyway. You don’t need me. But we need her. And the others too, but she can help us find them.”

It took a few more minutes of argument to persuade the council to reluctant agreement. Boros and Vengar were to command the evacuation and the counterattack against the ghul while Arussa gathered an escort of fast centaurs to guide them to elven territory. No one seemed happy with the decision, but Loren stuck to his guns. A winged being on a dragon… God. It had to be Anna. It had to be.

Didn’t it…?

 

***

He’d seen monsters, he’d fought dragons (or at least their moral equivalent) and he’d stood beside his friends in desperate battle. But never before had he sat astride a steed, clad in awesome armor with a magic sword at his side.

As it turned out that, despite the danger of their situation and the possibility of swift and merciless death, the experience was even cooler than he’d imagined it would be.

In this case his mount was a powerfully-muscled creature that they called a lubek — a great antelope-like thing with long, slightly curved horns like an ibex, a tawny hide with a single long black stripe at each flank, and a white underside. Its periodically glanced back at him with an intelligent expression, golden eyes gazing from a tan and white face decorated with black tear-marks.

The armor was pretty amazing too — supple black leather reinforced with panels of chain and steel plates at various strategic locations and a helmet that looked kind of like that Saxon one they’d seen at the museum. They’d whipped the entire thing up in a day and it fit like a glove.

At his side rode a triangular shield emblazoned with a stylized stag and of course the Seax of Beagnoth, now famous among the Kindred and fitted with its own custom scabbard.

Rob rode beside him, ill-at-ease in gleaming armor, a slim sword at his side, and his shield was emblazoned with a single silver nine-pointed star.

“Clearly you’re a lover not a fighter,” Loren said. “You ever actually use a sword?”

Rob shook his head. “Just a Playstation controller And I kind of sucked at it too.”

“Yeah, it’s a little more complicated than square, square, circle, triangle.” Loren patted the seax and tried to sound reassuring. “If we get into the shit, get your shield out and stay behind me.”

Rob swallowed hard. “Will do.”

An excited bark echoed from near the lubek’s hooves, where Beowulf trotted along, his mouth open in stupid grin, tongue lolling.

“Don’t worry boy,” Loren replied. “Not much longer.”

It was a lie — they’d only been riding for a few hours, leaving the forests behind and entering the rolling plains beyond. Six sturdy male centaur warriors accompanied them — they were a terse and grim bunch, but their leader, a grey-bearded individual named Kalam, told him that the plains were the territory of the Kuningsväro and his allies. In addition to a seemingly endless supply of ghul imported from earth, he also had bunches of lizard-men and nasty humans who reportedly enjoyed inflicting extremely refined tortures on other humans and wearing their skins.

It was all just too much fun.

He and Rob had gotten a crash course on the kaiju guys. No, wait… Elves. Much easier to call them elves.

A lifetime of Tolkien and roleplaying prepared Loren for most of it. They were immortal, haughty, magically gifted, they thought they were better than everyone else (and in reality probably were, but they were terribly immodest about it), and stayed in their own territory, fortifying and defending, never helping out the other Kindred. They made amazing weapons and armor, and they were descended from dragons, the dragons had all died out or disappeared thousands of years ago, but were to return at the time of the elves’ greatest need, yadda, yadda, yadda.

“So you think some of our legends are a result of contact with this world?” Loren asked, both for his own sake and to take Rob’s mind off the possibility of bloody carnage.

Rob shrugged. “It sounds like it to me. The language sure sounds familiar. And there are stories from around the world about elves and faeries and dragons. You said that sometimes other realities kind of overlapped with ours.”

Loren nodded. “At least that’s what Alex and Anna say. I haven’t seem much either way, but there’s way too much similarity to legends here for it to just be coincidence.”

The conversation wound around for another hour or two. They ate in the saddle, chewing away on dried fruit and berries and experiencing pizza withdrawal. The sun rose higher, the temperature climbed as pale green-white light bathed the golden fields of waving grass. In the distance, Loren caught sight of herds of wild lubek, quietly grazing, then bolting as the party drew near. They crossed a few narrow streams, muddy and thin in the summer heat. Flocks of birds, some familiar and some not, rose up in noisy clouds.

They were raising dust too. The centaurs were skilled and did their best to conceal their progress, but even they couldn’t avoid leaving some signs of their passage. Thoughts of Chandler’s damned skin-wearers and lizard men kept intruding into Loren’s consciousness and he found himself looking for other dust clouds or flocks of birds.

But there was nothing. The day, long and overly warm, passed without incident, the tedium lessened by quiet conversation and thoughts that only came on long journeys. Two centaurs constantly scouted the way ahead, but saw nothing to suggest they had been detected. As the sun sank in a veil of red-green-yellow they reached a depression between two hills and made camp. They hobbled the two lubeks then ate in silence, with no fires, and watches were posted throughout the night. The day’s heat dissipated slowly as Loren lay on the hard ground, head pillowed on his saddle. Sleep came more quickly than he had expected. God, it was almost comfortable…

An urgent cry cut through Loren’s deep slumber…

Awaken! Awaken! The enemy is upon us!”

He rolled painfully to his feet, fumbling for the seax.

God damn. He’d slept in his armor. He hadn’t thought that was possible.

In the silvery-green moonlight he saw dozens of shapes, loping out of the grass like metal-covered wolves and saw one of the centaurs crash to the ground, blood jetting from a slashed throat.

Then they were on him and it was all he could do to stay alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

VIII: By Äitiku’s Light

Alex

Anna had been right. These beds were the best thing ever. My pleasant nap stretched into a long bout of virtual unconsciousness, and that might have been okay if it hadn’t been for those damned dreams. Another present from my goddess-patron that I’ve sarcastically thanked her for many times.

I soared over the moonlit grasslands, rippling silver in the night wind. I felt the last few traces of the day’s heat radiating from the ground below and the rush of air across my face. I smelled dust and trees, and from below I heard faint shouting.

All my senses were engaged — it was one way I could tell the difference between one of my lucid dreams and an ordinary one. And it was obvious that the lands that spread around me were those of Valtakimmäinen, with the elven woods behind me and the forested slopes of the mountains ahead. These were the plains where the ghul and the elves had fought, where Anna and her dragon had intervened, burning the enemy with ancient fire.

And now, below me, another struggle raged. I moved lower, flying like a bird, picking out the individual figures of combatants in precise, sharp-edged focus.

Centaurs — big equine bodies with human torsos, stabbing with long spears or lashing out with mighty iron-shod hooves. And ghul dozens of Dead Ones, scarred and modified with limbs and eyes and teeth of jagged metal. And there, in the center, surrounded by foes, two figures stood back-to-back, while a dark quadrupedal form leaped and snarled beside them. One wielded a familiar weapon, flashing blue…

The Seax of Beagnoth. And bearing it, face contorted and shouting…

Loren!

The word still echoed in my ears as I tumbled from the bed, falling noisily to the floor and struggled to my hands and knees, gasping. Moonlight shone through the open windows nearby. I felt a rush of heat, and the sword was in my hands, flashing angrily.

Anna was there by the time I had gotten to my feet, accompanied by a pair of elf warriors. She was wearing a silk nightgown and was still shaking off drowsiness as she spoke.

“What is it?” she asked. “Did you…”

“Loren,” I said, still trying to catch my breath, to slow my pounding heart. “He’s out there. With Rob and Beowulf. They’re being attacked.”

“Oh God.” Anna looked at her escorts. “Summon Master Vanakhotka and have someone bring my armor. And get Athramar ready to fly.”

“Celestial,” protested one of the elves, looking almost offended, “the ancient one slumbers…”

“Then fucking wake him up!” Anna barked, and her eyes flashed blue-white.

The two elves moved very quickly after that.

“Do you think you can find them?” Anna asked. She didn’t even bother questioning whether my dream was real or not — we’d all learned better than that over the years.

I held up the sword. I felt a familiar tug, urging me out of the castle, into the night beyond. “Yeah, I think so. I don’t know what kind of influence She Who Watches has here, but I feel something. I’m pretty sure Loren and Rob are out there, and they need us.”

Anna didn’t reply; we both knew what we had to do. When a scout arrived with her armor a moment later she began to dress in silence. I set down the sword and helped with straps and ties, my mind racing. She donned the armor as if she’d been born to it, and within a few minutes we were climbing the spiral stairs to the roof where the great dragon slumbered. The ancient Vanakhotka followed.

“I’ve summoned the metsänvartija,” he said urgently. “They’ll follow as swiftly as possible, and I’ll place enchantments on their mounts, but you’ll surely outpace them.”

“I know,” Anna replied, pushing open the doorway that led to the roof. “Do the best you can, but we have to fly. These are our friends and we need them.”

“I understand, Celestial,” the old elf replied. “We’ll help any way we can.”

Athramar took up most of the roof and stirred sleepily as we approached, regarding Anna with an almost friendly expression. She clambered up easily, and I noted that she seemed to have adapted to the new world with unbelievable ease, slipping effortlessly into the armor and bonding almost instantly to a giant dragon steed. Yeah, we had some kind of tie to this world, though for the life of me I couldn’t say what it was.

Pale greenish light shone from above as Athramar bore us into the sky. Nopeapeura, the small secondary moon was a pale dime to the looming fifty-cent piece of the larger satellite Äitiku, which was well past three-quarters full. Stars twinkled down in unfamiliar patterns amid a great swirling and glowing cloud brighter than the Milky Way. Was it Andromeda? One of the Magellanic Clouds? Was it our own galaxy, viewed from an entirely different place? Or was it another galaxy in an entirely different reality?

Our travels hadn’t made the universe any smaller. All they had done, and all our strange patroness had done was to make existence even stranger and less comprehensible. I despaired ever truly understanding what we had done or who any of us really were.

It was a long way. Anna estimated that it would have taken a day or more to ride. The moon had passed its zenith and was sinking toward the horizon when the sword’s urgent tug drew us downward.

Shit. Were we too late? Was the dream real-time — a terrible vision of events unfolding that I would be unable to prevent? Were Loren and Rob dead or in the hands of the enemy?

Hell.

The pull grew stronger. We’d know in a moment.

A scatter of figures grew larger in the moonlight. Fallen bodies, large and small, lay scattered in the bloodstained grass. Big equine figures kicked and stabbed, surrounded by thrice their number of hunched, loping horrors with faces like fleshless dogs. Two human figures were there too — as I watched one ran a foe through with a bluish flash, then fell as a second threw itself on him from behind, clawing and biting.

Loren!” For a moment, I thought it was my voice that rose up in a terrified scream, then I realized it was Anna, and the world dropped away as Athramar plummeted from the sky toward the knot of struggling figures.

The earth shook when he landed, sending ghul sprawling. Others turned and screamed as Anna lit from the saddle, blue wings soaring, and I scrambled down Athramar’s wing, sword held high.

Kashaptu!” The screams were almost unintelligible, animalistic cries, but I could pick out words. “Nomeus!”

I crashed through the grass, throwing myself at an eight-foot-tall ghoul whose skull was set with what looked like a trio of metal sawblades, like a three-crested mohawk. He swung a rusty morningstar, clanging into the blue-white blade of my sword. The thing shivered into pieces and the sword continued unhindered, slashing through the creature’s neck. I bounded over the fallen body, leaving it twitching on the bloody ground.

Blue flames flashed behind me, and I heard another ghoul’s shriek cut short by Athramar’s bass roar. Another ghul blocked my way, but it wasn’t looking at me, rather at the massive form that lumbered after me, wings blocking out the moonlight. I pushed it aside and I heard its scream fading rapidly into the night, as if it had been knocked away and sent flying hundreds of yards.

Three more ghul stood in a circle around Loren and Rob. Beowulf stood over his master’s fallen form, teeth bared, blood and foam spraying from his lips. As I raced in closer the great black hound launched itself at one of the attackers, fangs sinking into the corpse-eater’s throat, and the two tumbled in a whirl of limbs, metal and black fur.

Rob was still on his feet, also standing guard over Loren. He held a sword clumsily, but the fear in his young face was balanced by grim determination. He was splashed with gore, but seemed unhurt, and didn’t seem to even notice me until I thrust the sword through the back of one of his attackers, sending the creature down, spewing blood. The last attacker turned, regarding me with snarling defiance, then seemed to think better of it and bounded away into the darkness. A rush of wind blasted me and Athramar’s awesome bulk filled the sky as the dragon raced after the fleeing ghul. A moment later a burst of flames and another quickly-stilled howl of terror told me that Athramar had found his quarry.

I hastened toward where Rob stood. He panted, staring wide-eyed and exhausted beyond anything close to normal human limits.

“Alex? Oh God. Alex?” I grabbed him around the shoulders and held him close, looking down to where Loren lay. His eyes were open but his face was bloody.

“Wow,” he mumbled, struggling to rise and failing. I saw that he’d lost one of his front teeth. “You sure took your sweet time getting here, didn’t you?”

“Better late than never,” I replied. Rob pulled away from me and knelt beside Loren, pressing his hands down onto his wounds. Blue light glowed and Loren seemed to relax. The pain that had clouded his eyes faded and he moved less painfully. This time he managed to actually rise to a sitting position.

“I gotta tell you, Alex,” he said, in a weary but relieved voice. “This kid is the man.”

Anna appeared beside me, her skin still glowing faintly. When Loren saw her armor, he managed a whistle.

“Holy crap. You’re a damned angel, you know that?”

“Shut up.” Anna knelt beside him and threw her arms round his shoulder, then kissed his cheek. “If you ever get killed on me I swear I will fucking kill you.”

“Less likely with this kid around.” Loren let Rob get him on his feet as two surviving centaurs trotted up, wounded and bloody, but alive.

There was another gust of wind and Athramar alighted in the grass a few feet away. The ground shook again and Loren almost fell. When he looked at the dragon he whistled again.

“Friend of yours?”

“Yeah,” Anna replied. “We’d probably all be dead otherwise.”

We began to move painfully from the clearing, leaving the carnage behind.

“So what brings you to this lovely little spot?” Loren asked. Rob had managed to heal the worst of his injuries, but he still limped and looked slightly better than death warmed over. His tooth was still missing.

I forced a smile.

“That, my friend is a long story. I hope you have time.”

Loren snorted. “Nothing but, Alex. By the way, where’s Mia?”

I shook my head sadly. “Damned if I know. The last I saw of her she and Johar were facing down a regiment of ghouls single-handed.”

“Oh fuck.” Loren’s mood suddenly plummeted. “You’d better get me up to date fast, my friend.”

 

Mia

It was night when they arrived, tumbling head over heels into a grassy clearing. The air smelled fresh and clean, but with a spicy tang that was both unfamiliar and pleasant. A near-full moon hung in the sky, sending shaft of pale silver-green light through the trees.

“You alive, Arngrim?” she asked and heard an affirming grunt from the darkness nearby. The big Norseman emerged, brushing twigs and dead leaves off his chest and shoulders.

“It seems we’ve arrived,” he said. “Where is our little friend?”

“If you mean me, I’m over here.” Mia discerned a vaguely Tom-shaped lump sitting beside a tall, spindly tree with oddly-shaped leaves. “I guess this is the place Gordon didn’t trust me to go to, huh?”

“So it seems,” Arngrim replied, glancing around. “I think I can confirm that this is indeed Valtakimmäinen.”

Tom heaved himself to his feet, not without effort.

“Really? How can you tell?”

Arngrim nodded toward the edge of the clearing. “By them. I suggest you find a good hiding spot, boy.”

When Mia looked where Arngrim indicated, an electric sense of alarm shot through her and her kukris were in her hands.

A small horde of creatures was racing from the forest’s edge — big, scaled and armed with clubs and spears. They didn’t seem at all inclined to talk or get acquainted.

Arngrim bellowed and charged at them and after a moment’s hesitation, Mia followed, knives poised.

God damn, she thought, meeting the first lizard-man’s attack and slicing it from shoulder to chest. If it’s not one thing it’s another.

The night dissolved into blood and frenzied battle.

 

—END—

 

Thanks so much for reading Harbinger. And surprise, everyone! This isn’t the end, as the story has grown a hell of a lot more elaborate than I expected. Look for the final installment (and I really mean it this time), The God Machine, coming next month. And swing by my website at www.anthonypryor.com to sign up for my newsletter and get the whole series for free (assuming you haven’t already, you little dickens).

Get the Series!

 

Mia is only one character in my exciting supernatural series, The Shepherd, available at all major on-line retailers, or at the links below. If you love action, swords, gunplay, magic, demons, romance and adventure — and let’s face it, who doesn’t? — check it out and leave a review.

 

The Shepherd Book I: She Who Watches

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The Shepherd Book II: Wings of the Fallen

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The Shepherd Book III: A Shadow in the Deep

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About the Author

During the day, Anthony Pryor helps keep computers running at a large school district, but by night and on lunch breaks he’s been editing, developing and writing for more years than he cares to admit, producing fiction and support material for popular games like Battletech, Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder and A Song of Ice and Fire, and working for publishers like Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, Paizo Press, Green Ronin and others. He lives in Milwaukie, Oregon with an overweight cat, plays more games than is strictly healthy and tries with minimal success to master the bass guitar in his copious spare time. With a mom who used to hang out with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and a daughter who attends graduate school while fighting injustice and poverty in her spare time, Anthony’s actually the boring one in his family. His greatest ambition is to be a world-famous rockstar, but being a writer is okay, too.

 

 

 


The Ravenglass Fragment V: Harbinger

In the penultimate chapter of the Ravenglass Fragment, Alex St. John discovers that his girlfriend Anna now has a dragon named Athramar, and that she's the chosen one of the elves, Gordon P. Chandler throws a fit and breaks something, his minion Marla tries to keep him calm, and Panzerboy gets captured. Elsewhere Loren and ace boy reporter Rob Maher help plan the resistance with an army of dwarves, centaurs, sprites and beastmen, while Mia and Arngrim seek the final fragment that Gordon Chandler needs to complete the God Machine. All the pieces are in play, and destiny is bearing down on the Shepherd and his friends. It's the story that's so huge that it's going to take another episode to finish, so stay tuned!

  • ISBN: 9781370364916
  • Author: Metal Angel Press
  • Published: 2017-02-01 05:20:12
  • Words: 24119
The Ravenglass Fragment V: Harbinger The Ravenglass Fragment V: Harbinger