Home > Destiny of the Wulf, General > DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Seven.

DESTINY OF THE WULF: Chapter Seven.

THE BLACK TOWER

The black and emerald creature beat its thunderous wings, sending shocks of air at its captives below.

Jericho sensed the arrival of the dragon was not a coincidence. He had no chance of escape. Even if he managed to release the dragon’s grip, the fall would kill him.

Although undignified, the ride was not uncomfortable; the huge claws provided a surprisingly soft enclosure. This creature, he knew, had guarded Eraywen, and undoubtedly belonged to the dark order of witches and wizards of whose existence he had just learnt.

They travelled southwest, according to the position of the sinking sun, until Rosthagaar lay far behind. He craned his neck and was just able to see the island Sanctuary disappear, and this filled him with a sense of dread. No good would come of this new adventure, he was sure.

The dragon journeyed through the night; the beat of its wings was hypnotic. Jericho dozed during the flight, unable to fully sleep due to the cold. He woke instantly as the animal changed elevation. He was forced to squint as the morning sun’s first rays peeked over the distant horizon. The endless ocean swept below him. In the distance, a small speck of land grew larger with every wing beat.

He was alert immediately, his heart rate elevated, ready to fight or take flight at a moment’s notice. Eraywen should have revived by now and it intrigued him that she had not.

‘Eraywen,’ he called. ‘Eraywen!’

She stirred, and moaned slightly. Her eyes blinked a few times, before she opened them fully. It took a few moments for her to focus and she looked down, and then up at the dragon. Her scream was deafeningly loud. The dragon craned its neck to look at her, snorted a hot waft of air, and then continued its journey.

‘We’re going to die!’ Eraywen screamed.

‘No, we are not!’ Jericho yelled. ‘Now calm down!’

Eraywen sobbed quietly to herself. ‘What happened?’

‘Do you not remember? You got us into this mess.’

‘I don’t know what you are talking about. The last thing I remember is–’ Eraywen paused and screwed up her eyes in concentration. ‘I remember seeing you off to battle, and then I woke up here. He’s going to eat us, isn’t he?’

‘No, Eraywen, he’s not going to eat us,’ said Jericho through gritted teeth.

‘I’m scared,’ Eraywen wailed.

‘I know,’ said Jericho more softly. ‘I am too.’

Jericho thought for a few moments. Something about her was wrong, but he could not put his finger on it immediately. It was only after a hundred or so of the rhythmic wing beats that it hit him.

‘Eraywen, where’s your talisman?’ he asked.

‘What talisman?’

‘The silver butterfly talisman you wore around your neck last night.’

‘I don’t possess such a thing,’ Eraywen said, giving Jericho an odd look.

Jericho puzzled over this new information. Was the talisman cursed, and had it controlled her actions? He had heard of such items before, and they took powerful magic to create. He hoped upon hope that this would be the reason for his wife’s treachery.

‘Eraywen, this is important. Do you remember ever holding the silver butterfly necklace? Perhaps someone handed it to you?

She thought long and hard, and it was minutes before she replied. ‘I think I do remember something. After we said goodbye this morning, I collided with a man who wore a hood over his face. He dropped a few items and I helped him pick these up. I’m not certain, but I do think I saw a flash of silver just before I woke up here.’

Jericho felt a huge sense of relief at this news. ‘That was no accident. I think you were cursed by that talisman, and that man did this to you on purpose.’

‘Cursed?’

‘I feel you were bewitched by this talisman to do that man’s bidding. The moment you touched it your thoughts and actions became that of someone else. Did you get a good look at this man?’

Eraywen had no time to reply as the dragon took a deep dive. She screamed as a small island rushed up to meet them, as did the top of a very tall tower.

The dragon reared and slowed. Its wings beat slower and reversed as it hovered over the ramparts. The creature then released its grip on the captives. Jericho and Eraywen dropped several feet to the hard stone floor, and immediately three hooded figures approached and held outstretched arms. They did not, however, offer assistance to the couple. They each brandished wands.

Jericho rose slowly and stiffly. He and Eraywen had been lucky not to have been injured in the fall. He turned and helped his wife to her feet, and then stepped defensively in front of her.

A cruel-faced man who wore a blue tunic and black robes stepped forward. His dark hair flicked about his face as a result of the winds circling the top of the tower. A scar that appeared to be a recent addition to his features ran the length of his face to his neck.

‘Welcome. I am Le’roth. Please do not attempt to use magic to escape,’ he said. ‘You will find that your journey will end very quickly in a watery grave. You are beyond the limit at which the Destinaté spell can transport you, and there are no boats on this island, before that thought enters your mind.’

‘Of that I have no doubt,’ Jericho replied. ‘Why have we been brought here?’

The captor prodded Jericho in the chest with his finger. ‘We will ask the questions. Follow me.’

Although the man was pleasant in speech, Jericho perceived a ruthless streak in him, and made a mental note to stay well clear. He quickly eyed the other guards, and held Eraywen’s hand. He escorted her down a trapdoor set into the floor without argument.

A cold stone spiral staircase led steeply downwards into the bowels of the tower.

The party passed numerous drab wooden doors, from which a cacophony of noises disturbed the mind. Indistinct screams emanated from a room halfway down the tower and set Eraywen on edge. She looked at her husband, terrified, and grasped him tightly. The general placed an arm around his wife, hoping to comfort her.

What little light drawn in through the slit windows diminished as they trod lower into the depths of the structure, the coldness in the air increasing. Now only torches lit the way at regular intervals with crazy shadows that bounced off the walls.

Everywhere Jericho noticed that symbols of a dragon were embedded into the stonework of doorframes and into the ironwork of fiery torches.

Every now and then, the escorts roughly poked their captives in the back with a wand to serve as a reminder that they were still under guard, and it took all of Jericho’s restraint not to react.

A short time later, the steps stopped and a passageway opened out before them. The arched roof oozed dampness and echoed their footsteps as they walked its length.

Jericho, ever observant, kept a mental note of their path, should the opportunity for escape arise. He pondered that they must be quite a distance under the seabed.

It was darker here still and the sounds of chains rattled and echoed. Screams of the unseen unnerved Eraywen and the general, their thoughts turning to what would become of them. The group approached a fork in the tunnel, and here several men sat on wooden crates in a pool of light. They appeared to be engrossed in a game that was a cross between chess and backgammon.

The gamers stiffened as the small group approached, and when Le’roth stepped into the light, the seated guards visibly relaxed.

‘Oh, it’s you,’ said a gruff voice. ‘I thought it was the master.’

Le’roth raised an eyebrow at the speaker. ‘Believe me, Nestis, if it was the master, you would be dead where you sit.’

Nestis rose sharply, as if to challenge Le’roth, and a fellow guard grabbed his arm and arrested his ascent.

‘You think I lie?’ Le’roth spat. ‘Our master does not suffer fools easily, and you are foolish if you think he does not know you do not guard your prisoners, and instead sit and play children’s games.’

‘From what I hear, Le’roth,’ Nestis sneered, ‘you too are fortunate to be alive, after your last failure. One of many, no doubt.’

Le’roth laughed. ‘I see you are as hilarious as ever, Nestis. However, as you can see, I do not have time for your games. Unlike you, I am on an errand for our master. Now, where would you like the prisoners kept?’

‘Well, let’s see who we have here.’ Nestis rose again and swaggered out of the light and into the gloom. He first grabbed Eraywen and then pulled her to him and reached around to grip her backside. She squealed and he laughed.

Jericho lost his composure and lunged for Nestis, but was arrested as a wand was raised to his face in the blink of an eye, barely an inch from his nose.

‘Who do we have here so eager to pick a fight with me?’ Nestis chortled. He caught hold of Jericho by the hair and dragged him into the light where his smile faltered. ‘You? You die, now!’

Nestis raised his wand once more and prepared to strike, but it was immediately blasted out of his hand and disappeared into the darkness. He rubbed his hand in pain.

‘Who dares–’

‘I dare.’ Le’roth stepped forward. ‘You will not harm my prisoner. That is my job, should it come to it.’

Nestis spat on the ground. ‘I will not kill your prisoner.’ He swung quickly to face Jericho and struck him in the face. ‘But there’s no saying I can’t rough him up a bit. That, general, was for the squadron of men you slaughtered at Windelrow.’

Jericho fell to his knees and rubbed his sore jaw. ‘The battle of Windelrow, yes, I remember it well. It’s funny how you escaped a certain death. Perhaps you were the one that ran tail between his legs, and left your men without a captain.’

‘Lies!’ Nestis thundered, and aimed a kick at Jericho’s face.

Le’roth slammed Nestis hard into the rock wall of the tunnel, a forearm resting heavily on his breastbone. ‘Calm yourself,’ Le’roth growled. ‘Now, where do I put the prisoners? Be warned, I will not ask again.’

Nestis avoided his gaze. ‘Third cell on the right.’ He pointed to his left down a dark intersection of the tunnel.

‘There now, that was not so difficult, was it?’ Le’roth patted Nestis on the cheek, and then gripped it tightly. ‘Next time, do not keep me waiting.’

Le’roth let him go and turned to his prisoners; he hauled Jericho to his feet and pushed him forward into the gloom, followed closely by Eraywen.

‘A fine lot of help you were.’ Nestis winced in pain as he returned and sat with his fellow guards at their makeshift games table.

‘We’re not picking any fights with him,’ a young guard piped up.

‘Cowards,’ Nestis hissed.

‘The way we hear it, you’re the coward,’ a gravelly voice chimed in.

Everyone burst into fits of laughter to Nestis’s chagrin. He cuffed the young guard around the head, and that made everyone laugh that much harder.

The morning that followed brought with it no relief from the cold or bitter dampness that Jericho and Eraywen had endured overnight in their cell. It was nothing more than a rock cave with a solid wooden door in one wall. A single torch had burnt low during the night, and a pile of rags on which to sleep stank of the hundreds of previous occupants.

The last tenant had busily engraved a monologue along one wall in a strange language neither Jericho nor Eraywen understood. Jericho looked dishevelled and had spent time checking the walls and door for a means of escape, to no avail. The rest of the night he had watched his wife sleep while he formulated plan after plan for escape, each of which he discarded. Every scenario failed because it meant he had to take his wife with him and she would slow him down. He could never bring himself to leave her behind, only to rescue her later. He needed a plan that would allow his wife safe passage alongside him. For now though, the ideal solution eluded him.

Chains and bolts rattled on the far side of the cell door. A peephole opened and then shut abruptly with a clang. The heavy wooden door creaked open on rusted iron hinges, and revealed Nestis standing alone with a wand in hand.

‘Good morning, I trust you slept well?’ Nestis sniggered. ‘No? Oh well, never mind. I am sure once my master is finished with you, you’ll welcome a long deep sleep.’

Jericho ignored Nestis’s taunts. Instead, he turned to Eraywen and shook her awake, and supported her as she stiffly got to her feet.

‘Nothing to say?’ Nestis asked. ‘You will have. Now, move it,’ he ordered.

Jericho linked arms with Eraywen and led her out of the cell at Nestis’s command, into an equally dank tunnel system.

‘Where are you taking us?’ Jericho demanded, aware of the wand pointed at him, and curious as to why Nestis was alone.

‘To see my master, of course.’

‘Who is he?’ Jericho asked, and half expected a blow to the head.

‘You know, you ask far too many questions. He is Lord and Master of all of this,’ said Nestis with a grand gesture.

‘He must be so proud to own such an endearing home,’ Jericho snorted.

Nestis looked affronted. ‘This is merely the dungeon, you fool. Now, shut up and move.’

As Nestis escorted them through the complex of tunnels, Jericho kept a close eye on security, and upon first inspection it appeared to be light. This was an advantage; however, he of all people knew that appearances were often deceptive.

They had, Jericho noted, followed a tunnel with a steady incline, and after a quick glance over his shoulder his suspicions were proved correct. Eraywen had become quite puffed; she was not as fit as her husband, and gratefully accepted help partway up the tunnel.

Their journey ended in a dead end and both Eraywen and Jericho turned to Nestis, confused.

‘Here we are,’ Nestis announced.

Jericho raised an eyebrow at him, and then looked at Eraywen and shrugged.

‘You doubt me?’

‘Well, the tunnel has ended,’ said Eraywen quietly from behind her husband.

‘Pretty lady, get ready for a surprise,’ said Nestis with glee. He shoved Jericho aside, and pushed Eraywen roughly towards the rock wall of the tunnel. However, before she hit, she vanished in a bright white flash.

‘A simple portal,’ said Nestis smugly and turned back to Jericho.

Jericho grabbed Nestis’s wand arm and twisted it behind his back. The man gave a howl of pain that was immediately silenced as Jericho brought his forearm around the man’s neck and squeezed tightly.

‘How do I get off this island?’ he hissed.

With a barely noticeable motion, Nestis shook his head.

‘Pity, I would have spared your life.’

Nestis struggled and then stiffened as Jericho wrenched his captive’s arm further up his back.

There was a crack as his shoulder socket dislocated and he gave a yell. Jericho aimed the captive’s wand at his head and uttered the death curse. Nestis collapsed. Jericho allowed the man to fall to the ground and then bent and retrieved the wand from the dead man’s hand.

‘Now who is the fool?’ Jericho grunted, and stepped into the portal stream, just inches from the wall.

He felt as if the air had been sucked out of his lungs, and a giant weight threatened to crush his skull for the few moments that he was in the portal. This was poor magic, apprentice level at best. Transportation in this manner should have felt as if his whole body was tingling with warmth.

It was a relief to reappear at the other side of the portal, and he collapsed on the floor.

Eraywen rushed to his side and helped her husband stand. ‘Where’s that awful man?’

‘Dead,’ Jericho replied without remorse. ‘Which is what will happen to us if we are caught here without a guard.’

‘What do we do?’ Eraywen cried.

‘Get out of here without being seen. That’s the easy part, though I don’t suppose we will be able to use magic to port home.’ Jericho checked about him for danger.

‘They must get off the island somehow, these people.’

‘True, and I guess we’ll find out how soon enough.’ Jericho smiled reassuringly. ‘Let’s move before they discover Nestis’s body. Stay behind me, and keep quiet. If I say run, you run, okay?’

‘Yes, okay.’ Eraywen nodded.

Jericho crept forward with Eraywen so close behind that he could feel her hot breath on his neck.

The other side of the portal had brought them to a world far removed from the dark, damp dungeon. They were still in a tunnel, but this one was exposed to the outside world, and this section ended with a jagged hole in its roof. At some stage, a cave-in had occurred, and a breeze from the sea wafted towards them, salty and fresh. A shaft of sunlight cast a beam through the hole in the tunnel wall, and illuminated what appeared to be a pile of rags thrown against the rock wall.

Jericho and Eraywen moved forward carefully, and after a few steps, Jericho froze. He turned to his wife and raised a finger to his lips.

He crept forward again, and brandished his newly acquired wand. He did not need it to perform magic, he could use unspoken magic should he desire, but it served as a deterrent.

Jericho stepped up to the pile of rags and knelt quietly. He prodded at them with the wand.

‘Just another five minutes,’ a sleepy voice complained from the pile.

‘If I were you I would get up, and be pretty quick about it too,’ said Jericho loudly, as if he had ordered one of his troops.

The rags moved as swift as lightning. So did Jericho. His hand shot out to grab the sleeper by the throat and Jericho shoved him against the rock wall.

‘Oh my, you’re a prisoner,’ croaked the man, his eyes wide in terror.

‘Then you know what I am capable of. One false move,’ Jericho squeezed the man’s throat harder, ‘and it will be your last.’

Jericho wrinkled his nose in disgust as a waft of urine invaded his senses. He looked down at the poorly dressed man. He was shorter than average, wiry and bald, wearing a ripped and charred cloak that appeared to be made of sackcloth. His skin was as rough as leather and looked scorched in places, especially the arms.

Jericho’s sense of smell had worked well. A pool of urine had begun to puddle at the man’s sandals. He released his grip slightly and spoke more softly. ‘Who are you?’

‘I’m a dragon wrangler. I don’t do nothing other than look after dragons, honest.’

Jericho released his grip on the man, but did not lower the wand. ‘What is your name, dragon wrangler?’

‘Silentus Madook.’ His eyes darted here and there and looked for escape.

Did this little man really handle dragons? If so, Jericho knew better than to underestimate him.

‘They don’t need much handling really. I feed them six times a day, and muck them out every morning,’ Silentus offered with a weak smile. He wiped his brow, which had begun to bead with sweat.

‘The wizards, why do they need dragons, what do they use them for?’

‘Well, they travel from here to the mainland mostly, and back again, like.’

‘How come you are working for these people?’ Jericho demanded, and searched for a lie in the man’s eyes.

‘Believe me, it isn’t by choice. I run up a bit of a gambling debt, like,’ Silentus began. ‘As it turns out, I couldn’t pay. So anyway, this chap, he comes to me, he does, and says he can write off my debt, but I have to work for him, on account as how I’m good with horses, you see.’

‘Go on,’ Jericho said.

‘Well, that’s it, I thought I was looking after horses, instead it turns out it’s dragons. You know, I’ve been here ten years. You would have thought I’d have paid off my debt by now.’

Jericho grunted, and then signalled Eraywen to join them.

‘I’d do anything to go home, I would. God knows what the wife will say,’ Silentus mused.

‘Indeed. Perhaps I can help you get home.’ An idea had formed in Jericho’s mind. ‘You get us on a transport out of here, and I will ensure you and your family are kept safe until all this blows over.’

‘I’m not sure about that. These people are ruthless murdering scum.’ Silentus shook his head worriedly.

‘These people are amateur at best. I, on the other hand, am a general of a grand army.’

‘How come you got caught then?’

‘That, my friend, is thanks to one of your bloody great big dragons.’

‘Ah!’ said Silentus sheepishly.

‘Ah is right. Now, will you help us?’

Silentus thought hard. ‘If only to see the back of you, then yes.’

‘Fine, then I shall honour our agreement once we are off this island,’ said Jericho, and offered Silentus a hand in friendship.

Silentus took the hand and shook it, sealing the deal.

‘There is one question I have. Are these dragons used in combat? I plan to escape and don’t particularly fancy coming up against one of them; they are fearsome creatures. I would like to know how to defeat one if I cannot ride one out of here, and you seem to be best placed to advise me on that.’

Silentus grimaced. ‘It’s possible they use them for defence, I can’t say I’ve seen that. But I tell you, it isn’t an easy thing to kill a dragon, near impossible if the stories are to be believed. They can’t be trained, but they are susceptible to certain types of magic that can take away their free will for a while, helpful if you want to use them as transport. Take away its mind and ability to protect itself and then strike at the heart, and it will die, hopefully, if you do it right.’

Jericho looked hopeful. ‘We will talk later on this. Now lead on, friend, we don’t have all day.’

They stepped into the bright sunlight and immediately squinted, blinded by the sun’s rays that cut through a light mist that enveloped the island. It was a few moments before their eyes adjusted, and their new surroundings came into focus. An enormous solitary tower made from a cold, dark stone, rose hundreds of feet into the air. Low cloud skirted its bulk high up, and at the base of the tower, a building made from the same material gathered moss. It had a pitched roof made from straw, and from this angle, no doors or windows could be seen.

‘The building is really two,’ said Silentus. ‘To the left is the barracks and the right holds a meeting hall.’

‘Who meets there?’ Eraywen asked.

‘I don’t rightly know, they keep us away when there’s a meeting going on, but I do hear the guards talking, and they say a council of oath breakers meet here twice a week. Today is one of those days, and I was sent away as usual. I took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.’

Jericho thought long and hard. Warlocks – for that was what Silentus had meant, liars and dark wizards by any other name – meeting here, but why? This might be his one chance to find out. ‘I want to take a closer look at those attending the meeting. Where is the best place?’

‘It would be suicide to try to get close to the building during a meeting,’ Silentus objected. ‘But, if you are mad enough to try it, I do have a suggestion. The barracks are usually empty during the gathering as the guards are busy protecting the wizards.’

‘How does that help us?’

‘The wall between the two buildings is quite thin in the roof space. If you can get into the barracks unseen, you should be able to crawl through the roof space into the meeting hall.’

‘You seem very knowledgeable about this?’ Jericho eyed Silentus suspiciously.

‘Well, I should.’ Silentus shrugged. ‘I went poking about in the meeting room some time ago. I heard someone coming and panicked. I hid in the only place I could; the roof.’

‘How did you get out?’

‘Well, I couldn’t leave the way I came in, so I removed a few loose stones from the wall and slipped through. Thankfully no one was around.’

‘Well, okay, we need a plan,’ Jericho began. ‘Eraywen, I think you should stay out of sight, while Silentus checks to see if the barracks are clear. If they are, he signals me, and I will slip in undetected.’

Eraywen stepped up to Jericho, nose-to-nose, and scowled at him. ‘Why are you doing this? We need to escape. We should have been in their master’s presence minutes ago. By now they will be missing us.’

‘I know you are frightened, my sweet. But these troll droppings nearly destroyed our spiritual home, and I mean to find out who they are so that we can put a stop to their crimes. I will be gone mere moments.’

‘Why you?’ Eraywen whined. ‘Why not someone else?’

‘This may be the only chance we get to do this. There is no one else here who can.’

‘We should be making all haste to get off this island. It’s dangerous enough,’ Eraywen pleaded.

‘Enough!’ said Jericho gruffly. ‘The decision is made.’

‘I am not one of your soldiers to command,’ Eraywen half whispered, her eyes lowered.

‘No, you are my wife, but you are no tactician and fail to see the bigger picture. I do this to protect you. Now, please, let me do what I do best.’

‘Have you quite finished?’ Silentus asked. ‘Only the meeting is due to begin, if I’ve read the sun correctly.’

‘Oh, you’ve read it correctly, for a traitor.’

Silentus wheeled around at the sound of the new voice, and immediately a fist struck him in the stomach. He doubled up in pain, and then a second punch connected with his jaw. He fell onto his back, and was knocked out cold as his head hit the ground hard.

Jericho raised his wand in defence, but knew before he looked that he would be outmanoeuvred.

‘Now that I have your attention, I suggest you drop your wand, general. Despite what you did to Nestis, thank you, by the way, the master still wishes to see you.’ Le’roth smirked. He flicked his wand up and down as an indication that Jericho should drop his.

Jericho fleetingly contemplated a duel with Le’roth, but he knew the man would not be alone, and his instincts proved to be correct when several wizards appeared out of thin air, accompanied by loud cracks.

He was outnumbered, and unsure if he was fast enough to take out all of them before they struck back. There was the additional fear that he would hit his wife if he used a destruction spell. What about Eraywen? She was now in the greatest danger. He had to act, but how?

‘Caught twice in as many days, general. We are losing our touch.’ Le’roth chuckled to himself and circled Jericho. ‘Now, if you do not mind, follow me to the master. He is waiting.’

‘If I refuse?’

Le’roth looked at him, amused. This man dared to test him. ‘Then you pay the price.’ He raised his wand and a jet of red light erupted from its tip.

It struck Eraywen squarely in the chest. Her face was one of shock as the life left her eyes. Jericho launched himself forward as she fell to her knees and caught her in mid-air. He knew instantly that she was dead as she lay in his arms.

‘Perhaps now you will do as you are asked,’ said Le’roth, his tone and expression unmoved.

Jericho, with a solitary tear that ran down his nose, gently kissed Eraywen on her forehead, and then with his fingers he closed her eyes to the world for the last time.

He picked up his wife’s lifeless body in his strong arms and slowly made his way to the barracks several yards away. He was aware, if only distantly, that Le’roth shouted commands and orders to him, but he paid no heed.

Le’roth’s companions stepped aside and permitted him to pass, unwilling to interfere in the man’s grief.

He reached the doorway, and kicked the wooden door open with a crunch, and then located the nearest cot. There he gently laid Eraywen onto it, and knelt beside her, faintly aware of a presence behind him.

‘I don’t care what happens to me,’ said Jericho flatly. ‘But see to it that she is buried with dignity.’

‘It will be done as you ask,’ said a female voice. ‘However, I must bind you now.’

He was vaguely aware that his hands had been tied with leather strips, and then he was assisted to his feet.

Jericho, dazed with grief, allowed himself to be manoeuvred to the meeting hall that neighboured the barracks.

The decoration of the hall was lost on Jericho; his eyes focused on his feet. He had lost countless men in battle, but no amount of training or battle experience had prepared him for this. He blamed himself. If only he had not delayed.

The spacious meeting room held a single large wooden table, an ellipse of highly polished oak. There was a cut-out that led to a central circle, that permitted a speaker to stand within and address those sitting at the table. The circumference held thirteen highly decorated chairs, each with the carved representation of a dragon. The walls were draped in fine red and gold standards emblazoned with the symbol of the dragon, thirteen in all. Each was different, one for each of the attendees. The central standard was by far the largest and sported the shape of a giant black dragon ready to pounce. This matched the central chair, larger than the rest.

In this chair sat a hooded figure. A long beard of grey snaked its way to the floor. A gnarled hand that wore several bejewelled rings grasped the top of a wooden staff, which was inlaid with a band of gold that wound its way down the shaft and ended in a golden dragon claw.

Jericho was forced to kneel several feet from the figure in the chair.

Only then did the figure look up. ‘Dareth Jericho. How you have aged,’ he said, and dropped his hood. Long grey hair tumbled to his shoulders and a heavily scarred face looked intently at him. Piercing green eyes held his gaze. Jericho had the sudden compulsion to look away, but maintained his stare.

The grey-haired man raised a bony finger and beckoned. ‘Come closer so I may see you better,’ he rasped.

Jericho struggled to his feet, and moved forward a few steps before he was again forced to kneel by his captor.

‘You have me at a disadvantage, Sir,’ Jericho began. ‘Who are you?’

‘Ever the gentleman, Dareth. All in good time. I was hoping to meet your lovely wife again. Where is she?’

The young woman who guarded Jericho stepped forward and cleared her throat. She looked nervously at her master. ‘I am sorry. She is dead.’

The master rose sharply. ‘Dead!’ he roared. ‘What do you mean dead? How did she die?’

Jericho’s captor dropped her eyes as the wizard rushed forward and stood toe-to-toe with her.

‘I said, how did she die?’

Le’roth stepped into the intimate gathering. ‘I killed her, my Lord.’

The dark wizard swung to face him and reared to his full height. His eyes blazed red with fury.

‘Fool! Now the general will never defect, and no magic can turn him to our cause,’ he screamed.

Le’roth backed away and trembled with fear. The master raised a wrinkled grey hand, and cast a death curse at Le’roth. The latter gasped as a red energy ball hit him full force in the chest. He flew across the room and skidded to a stop against the meeting room wall. His focus fixed and his eyes dilated. His body gave a final sigh as the breath left him for the final time.

Jericho inwardly rejoiced at the death of the man who had taken the life of his beloved. So he had been correct, these people had wanted him to turn spy against his people.

‘That is the price of failure,’ said the cloaked figure to no one in particular. ‘Something I should have done to him long ago.’

Nobody said a word, too afraid of their master’s anger and of his next move. It was not long before he made it.

‘I suppose you think I am going to kill you too, Dareth, now that my plan has failed. Well, do not worry, you are safe, for now.’ The wizard hoisted Jericho to his feet and put an arm around his shoulders. He led him outside into the cool sea breeze. ‘Dareth, I am truly sorry for the loss of your wife. It is regrettable.’

‘Regrettable?’ Jericho snarled.

‘Indeed, I had never intended for my friend to be hurt in this way.’ A momentary flicker of remorse passed the man’s eyes.

‘We are not friends,’ Jericho sneered.

‘I take it, then, that my appearance prevents you from recognising me?’

‘Am I supposed to know you?’

‘Dareth, you and I were friends for many years, till the day you killed me.’

The general shot him a questioning look, and then the truth became clear. He was looking into the heavily scarred face of his closest and most beloved friend, Lordich Secracar.

Lordich had conspired with Draken to overthrow the Brotherhood of the Wulf and establish his own rule in the seat of power. After a fierce battle between the Brotherhood and Lordich’s armies, Major Jericho, his rank at the time, had single-handedly captured Lordich alive. Draken had escaped, but was found some time later, hiding in a concealed chamber built into a well in the grounds of his home. He claimed that Lordich had controlled his thoughts and actions with a mind-altering herb concoction.

Investigations into Draken’s claim could not conclusively disprove his testimony, but he was banished from the temple by Curator Menin. His great marble statue in the temple grounds was defaced, alongside Lordich’s own. They remained to this day as a reminder to those who might choose the wrong path.

His peers, however, found Lordich guilty and sentenced him to death for sedition. He appealed the decision, but Archmage Orodor upheld the verdict and Major Jericho was given the order to execute his friend at dawn the next day. He had pleaded with Orodor that he be spared the grim task, but Orodor would not hear of it, and so the order stood.

The hour arrived for the execution to take place, and Lordich was led out of the temple dungeon in chains and under heavy guard by his former friends.

Brethren lined the paved walkway from the temple to witness the betrayer being led away. Some booed and jeered him as he went, yet he steadfastly ignored them, proud to the last.

An execution in this manner had not occurred for one thousand five hundred years, so far back there was only one reference to the deed in the temple archive. To kill a dark wizard was not an easy task; many had lost their lives trying. It was determined the only true way to kill such a foe was to cast him into a fiery volcano, and thereby obliterate all traces of the condemned. The timing was critical, as a dark wizard possessed powerful magic, as the tale of the wizard Rindoch reminded them.

The dark warlock Rindoch had escaped his fiery death by summoning a dragon to his side moments before he hit the volcanic magma. He was snatched out of thin air and whisked away to safety under the very noses of his guard.

The people of the village suffered at his hands for many years after that. Therefore, no chances had been taken with Lordich. He would be bound hand and foot and locked inside a heavy iron cage, too great for a dragon to lift easily. The cage would be tethered with rope to prevent it being taken. As a final measure, an anti-porting spell was cast over the cage, preventing any chance of escape.

Lordich calmly allowed himself to be bound and assisted into the cage that would ferry him to his death. Had he planned an escape? Jericho had instructed his men to be extra vigilant.

Horses heaved the cart laden with the cage and carried it to a clearing in the woods to the north of the Sanctuary. Here the order had constructed a platform above a pit that led to a magma lake below. Sanctuary, under Rindor’s protection, was once the site of an active volcano; now the lake bubbled away harmlessly.

The cage was unceremoniously dragged onto the platform by a dozen tethered horses, which strained under the weight. It was raised by pulleys over the pit, where it dangled precariously.

Major Jericho, dressed in a black cape and hood, clambered up the steps to the platform. He did not look directly at the prisoner; instead he directed his attention to the crowd that had gathered to witness the event. Ghouls, he thought as he raised a hand for silence. He took a moment to steel himself.

‘Brothers and Sisters, we meet today in the worst of circumstances. However, what we do today will serve as a message to those who oppose truth and justice.’ He walked the length of the platform, a frown creasing his brow. ‘Do not be saddened that we lose a friend; instead rejoice that we rid the world of one more corrupt and evil individual.’

Jericho allowed a moment for his words to sink in, and winced as a cheer resounded from the growing crowd.

‘Lordich, the traitor and conjurer of dark magic, has, before his peers, been condemned as an oath breaker and is sentenced to death. I ask you now, Lordich, do you have any final words before sentence is carried out?’

Lordich looked up and out to the crowd. ‘You think you are guided by truth and justice. I say you are ruled by prejudice and fear. Beware; others will come to challenge your authority. Before you murder me, I have a final word for Dareth. Major, if you please.’

Jericho visibly sagged; he had hoped that this would have been over quickly, and without the need to interact with Lordich. He turned and moved closer to the cage that swung slightly in a light breeze.

‘I do not blame you, and I hope to see you again someday soon, my friend,’ Lordich whispered.

‘In another life, perhaps?’ Jericho asked.

‘Something like that.’ Lordich winked. ‘Now, quickly, perform the deed. I tire.’

Jericho nodded and picked up an axe that was propped against the platform. With a roar he swung the axe. The rope cleaved and the cage dropped silently into the chasm, save for the rasp of the guard ropes as they followed it into the fiery pit. There were sharp intakes of breath, and a few sobs were heard from the crowd.

The major stepped over to the edge of the pit and checked that the cage had fallen. Convinced, he cast aside the axe and heaved closed a heavy trapdoor that covered the pit when not in use.

He fought back his emotions and again turned to the crowd. ‘Brothers and Sisters, the sentence has been carried out in accordance with our laws.’

He hurried down the steps and walked out of sight into the woods that surrounded the clearing. He walked for a few minutes, stumbling now and then in the early morning light that barely penetrated the canopy.

He reached an enormous oak tree that towered into the sky and slumped against it. There he sobbed unashamedly. The tears clouded his vision.

Above him, carved into the bark of the tree, were the names Lordich, Jericho, Draken and Perindar. They had joined the Brotherhood as young men and had over the years formed a lasting bond. Draken had been banished, Perindar had been killed in battle some months ago, and now Jericho’s closest friend had been executed by his own hand.

Several minutes later, he dried his tear-stained face and took out his knife, which he used to gouge the names of the traitors out of the bark, each slice like a dagger to the heart.

Back on the island, General Jericho looked into the face of a man he thought long dead and felt weak at the knees. In the space of thirty minutes, he had lost his wife and regained an old friend.

‘How can this be?’ Jericho spluttered. ‘I watched you fall myself.’

‘You wizards of light still cannot embrace the idea of the dark. Dark magic is not something to be feared, it should be embraced. I accept both dark and light and this makes me powerful beyond imagining.’

Jericho sniggered. ‘All that power and you allowed yourself to be caught.’

‘I was merely a novice then. I have had many years to master the two disciplines.’

‘So what? You want me to spy for you? That, my friend, will never happen.’

‘Oh, I know that.’ Lordich smiled regretfully. ‘I might have had a chance to turn you but for the fool Le’roth. Grief has a nasty habit of getting in the way of magic. It renders any attempt to influence your mind utterly futile.’

‘What a pity.’

‘So if I am not going to kill you, that leaves me with but one option, to hold you on the island indefinitely, or until I destroy your precious Brotherhood, at which point I may release you.’

‘So that’s your plan? Destroy the Brotherhood and exert your influence over the balance between religion and magic that we have fought so hard to maintain for thousands of years.’

‘Exactly. Rostha may believe it holds the power, but you and I know who truly rules the masses,’ said Lordich. ‘It is about time for a change to the way of things, for the peoples to embrace a new religion, one that has both light and dark.’

Jericho sighed and shook his head. ‘Poor deluded fool.’

‘It is not I who is deluded; can you not see a change has been in the winds for some time? You mock me, and yet I spare you.’

‘What is left for me in this world that I should be spared?’

‘I have not killed you because I wish you to see the birth of my new world. I stand by what I said the day you cast me into the pit. I do not blame you.’

‘Well, that’s good of you.’

‘Do not be like that, Dareth. I do not expect us to be friends, but I at least hoped we could be civil. I even hoped that you would join me in my conquest.’

‘What makes you think I would ever join you? I wasn’t fit to include in your plans so many years ago, was I?’

‘Would you have joined me?’

‘No. Not then, and not now.’

‘Then out of respect for our former friendship, enjoy your new home,’ said Lordich with regret.

Jericho remained silent as he surveyed his new prison. He had to escape and warn his brethren.

Lordich clicked his fingers at his closest aide, who scuttled to his side and received a whispered instruction. The aide gave a low bow, and approached Jericho, who was immediately on guard, but relaxed as he felt his bonds released. He rubbed his wrists and winced at the pins and needles that followed.

‘Dareth?’ Lordich began. ‘There is nowhere to run. Do not try to escape. I would hate to clap you in irons and confine you to a cell.’

‘I’m sure,’ Jericho muttered.

‘Your freedom comes at a price. You will be escorted at all times by two guards. You will eat, sleep, and toilet in their company.’

‘Am I supposed to be grateful?’

Lordich laughed. ‘Not at all. Well, maybe a little.’

‘There is one thing.’

‘Yes?’ Lordich asked with a raised brow.

‘How did you escape the pit?’

‘I guess I owe you an explanation.’ Lordich looked at the crescent-shaped visage of Er’ath’s sister planet Rol’as, highlighted in the morning sky. ‘I made a pact with Death.’

‘What do you mean death? You mean the Death?’

‘Yes. Despite his reputation, he is actually quite pleasant. We made a deal to ensure my continued existence.’

‘What did you trade?’

Lordich cocked his head and studied Jericho. ‘Four hundred thousand, two hundred and thirty-eight lives for my own.’

Jericho looked horrified. ‘No!’

‘The process began many years ago, and that number has grown, but no matter, they will all perish. Burning in a lake of molten rock is not a pleasant experience, yet, true to his word, Death rescued me, and I promised him the deaths of every member of the Brotherhood of the Wulf, bar one. You.’

‘No, you mustn’t, you can’t. They are innocent,’ Jericho cried.

‘I can, and I shall.’ Lordich nodded to the general’s guard. ‘Take him away.’

Rough hands gripped Jericho. He struggled and raged as they marched him away.

Jericho wrenched himself from his captor’s grasp. ‘Mark my words, Lordich, you will pay for this with your life.’

A club struck him on the back of his neck, and he sank to his knees semi-conscious. Supported by his guard, and subdued by the blow, he was dragged through the long grasses.

Lordich closed his eyes, and then shook his head. ‘I already did.’

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