Authors: William King
STEALER OF FLESH
Copyright © William King 2012
This book is dedicated to Howard Andrew Jones, who was there at the start.
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ALL AROUND THE unseasonal blizzard raged. Chill flakes of snow landed on Kormak’s face. His feet felt numb, his clothing sodden. Hunger made his stomach growl. Cold leeched the strength from his limbs. He drew his cloak tight about his tall spare form but the wind still cut. He knew that he could not go much further and that he was doomed if he did not find shelter soon.
He pushed a strand of greying black hair from his eyes and squinted into the darkness. Night and snow made it difficult to see more than a few strides ahead.
He was not even sure he was on the road any more, the old route the Oathsworn Templars had taken to the Sacred Lands. The snow had piled up so he could not see the ancient flagstones the First Empire had placed here millennia ago. He was lost in this white wilderness.
This was not the way he had expected to die. When he had sworn his oaths as a Guardian he had thought he would fall in battle with some remnant of the Elder Races who had ruled the world before the coming of Men. There had been times when he had faced death by dark magic or beneath the curved obsidian scimitar of an orc. Once he had seen his end written in the eyes of a lovely vampire. He had not expected to pass in a way at once so terrible and so prosaic, to fall frozen where his brethren would have difficulty finding his body and recovering his dwarf-forged blade.
There should have been no snowstorms in eastern Belaria even this late in the autumn. The weather had been strange ever since the Great Comet had appeared in the sky. Perhaps it truly was a sign that the world was ending.
He wondered if it was worthwhile to continue leading his horse through the storm. There was a reason he was doing so but he could not remember what it was. It was as if the cold had frozen his mind as well as his body. Thinking was as difficult as putting one foot in front of the other.
Perhaps he should simply lie down and rest. Just for a moment, he could pillow his head in the soft snow drifts and gather his thoughts and his strength and then be on his way again. It would be good to rest…
No. That way lay death. If he stopped, he would never start again, would remain frozen in place until the spring thaws hit these vast plains. He would be covered by a blanket of snow which would not warm him but kill him. He needed to move and to keep moving.
And then what, a small, despairing part of his mind asked? What difference did it make? Soon he would reach the end of his strength. Soon his numbed limbs would fail and he would stumble and fall.
He remembered what he planned with the horse. He had heard once of a Kojar tribesman who had survived such a storm by slitting his horses belly and clambering inside it as a sleeping sack. He was not sure he believed that story and he doubted that it would work anyway, but what other hope did he have?
He raised his foot and put it down. Just keep going. One more step. And then another. He had been in worse situations. He had expected to die on other occasions and he was still alive. He needed to stay that way. He must succeed in tracking down the stolen amphora. The demon’s prison could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. The ancient evil of the Ghul must not be allowed to enter the world once more.
He cursed. He had come so close back in Saladar. He had overtaken the thieves and almost caught them. Only one had escaped, carrying the sealed metal jar in which the Ghul had been bound, while the rest delayed him. He had killed them but they had bought time for the last to escape. If only he had been a fraction quicker he would already have been on his way back with the amphora and not stuck out here in this blood-chilling cold.
In the distance he heard howling. His horse, tired as he was, whinnied nervously. On these cold plains hunger sometimes drove the huge wolves to hunt men. They might be led by something worse. He had encountered sentient creatures who loved to hunt with the packs, had killed them when called upon to. There were tales of such creatures hunting in the Mountains of Darkness and those were not too distant. He must be close to the border of Belaria and Valkyria now. Maybe if the blizzard stopped he might even be able to see the peaks. Thinking of the wolves, he reached up to touch the blade that hung over his shoulder. His hands were so numb he felt only its outline in the air, not the texture of the thing.
The wind played strange tricks. It was difficult to tell how close the howling was. Would some huge grey form come loping out of the gloom just ahead or was the pack leagues away on the trail of something else? Almost he would have welcomed the fight. It would warm him up and if death came it would be quick and clean.
What was that? Ahead of him, just for a moment, through the flurries of snow, he thought he caught sight of a light. He told himself he was imagining it, that it was a product of his chilled imagination. There were no lights here. This was a place beyond all hope of human habitation, he was the last man alive on these cold plains. There was no light.
The howling sounded again, coming closer, he was sure. He trudged on, feeling as if he was moving up a rise. It was hard to tell, he had lost all sense of direction and orientation in the storm. From the way his legs felt, from the way he was coming close to stumbling, he was on a slope. Perhaps at the top of one.
There. Again. He saw a light. There was definitely something down there. Was he smelling smoke now or was that a trick of his imagination?
He thought about the wolves. He thought about the lights. It would be a cruel jest if the creatures pulled him down within sight of safety. He felt like laughing. He was assuming too much that he had been trained not to. There was no guarantee that the light represented safety. It could be a fire around which murderers sat or the creation of something far worse, intended to lure lost travellers to their dooms.
And yet would he be worse off if the creatures around the fire turned out to be killers, or things who wanted only to feast on his flesh and perhaps his soul? If they were men, he could fight them and take their fire, and if they were monsters…Well, he had been trained to kill such by those who were expert in the art.
He stumbled on and the light vanished; a cruel will o’ the wisp sent to raise his hopes only to dash them. He kept moving in the direction he thought he had seen the light in, and he still thought he smelled smoke. His horse whinnied as if it too smelled safety. It began to push forward, moving in the same direction as Kormak and that reassured him; he was on the right trail. He let it drag him along in its wake.
The beast had lengthened its stride so that it was difficult for him to keep up. It was as much fleeing the wolves as it was moving towards what it thought might be a safe haven, and there was still the possibility that it might go wrong in the dark. Kormak stumbled and almost fell.
He knew now he was almost too weak to go on, and certainly too weak to face the wolves if they overtook him. He was at the end of his strength. All he could do was try to keep up with the horse and hope that it did not tug him off his feet. He was not sure he would ever rise again if that happened.
Ahead of them something large loomed out of storm and snow and night shadow, and blocked his progress. It took his frozen brain time to realise that it was a massive stone wall. He fumbled with his cold gauntleted hands and found no opening in it, so he started making his way around until he came to a gate. It was a large wooden one and it appeared to be closed. There was no way forward from where he was. He banged on it with his hands and shouted but he doubted there was any way he could be heard over the wind.
He laughed aloud. He had come so far only to be thwarted at the last. No. He would not give up. Gracelessly, he pulled himself into the saddle of his horse. The beast protested against his weight. It was just as tired as he was. No matter, he pulled on the reins and it reared. He gave it the command to kick and it brought its weight crashing down against the gate. He doubted the owners of this place would be too pleased by what he was doing but he had other concerns on his mind. The horse hammered the gate again and again but could not budge it. It seemed like the gateway had been built to withstand a battering ram. Kormak kept at it until the horse could do no more.
He slumped from the saddle, wearily, all of his energy gone. He thought he heard voices beyond the gate and tried to rise, but his limbs betrayed him. Dizziness swept over him and darkness took him.
He awoke in a bed. It was hard and lumpy but it was warm. He was inside in a room with wooden shutters and heavy drapes and a fire burning in one corner. Blankets and furs had been piled on top of him. The first thing he did was look around for his sword.
“Be still, stranger,” said a wheezy old voice. “You are exhausted and you may well have suffered some damage at your extremities where the frosts spirits nibbled on your fingers and toes.”
The accent was an odd one, but it spoke the trade tongue of the Holy Road understandably. Kormak looked up and saw a tall, skinny old man with a forked beard looking down on him. He had a candle on a plate in one hand. Many, many amulets dangled from his neck. All of them were covered in Elder Signs and mystic symbols; so were the dozens of rings on his fingers. A huge, armoured soldier in a surcoat with a rampant griffon stood behind him.
“Where am I?” Kormak asked.
“It is lamentable the clichés to which men resort in situations like this,” said the old man in his wheezing voice.
“Are you going to answer my question or indulge in literary criticism?” said Kormak.
“You are in the mansion of Lord Tomas of Malaride,” said the old man. Kormak kept his face carefully blank. Lord Tomas was the man who had sent the thieves to steal the amphora. It seemed he had stumbled into the place he was seeking. It was hardly surprising. It was where he had been trying to reach.
“Am I back on the Holy Road then?”
“You are lucky to be alive,” the old man said.
“This I know,” said Kormak. “How did I get here?”
“We heard the banging at the gate. Tarsus here insisted we investigate. He thought it might be orcs attacking,” said the soldier. He was a massive man with a shaven skull that showed a lot of old scars. “A very nervous man is our friend Tarsus. For all his claims to be able to read the stars and see the future, he never foresaw it would be you and not orcs.”
“Orcs have not been seen in these parts since the Nations went east at the end of the war,” said Kormak.
“You know that. I know that. Apparently our scholarly friend here does not,” said the guard.
“Be silent, Marcus,” said the wizard. “You speak only to sneer at those more educated than you.”
“Where is my sword?” Kormak asked.
“I trust you are not planning on using it on this wizened ancient. It would seem singularly ungrateful after he has saved your life,” said Marcus.
“I have no reason to do that,” said Kormak. Perhaps, he thought. Not yet.
“What are you doing in these parts?” The guard clearly knew something of the function of his order. “I have heard rumours that there are wolves that walk like men out there in the Mountains of Darkness. It seems the moondogs have rebelled against their liege lord, King Sturmbrand of Valkyria and those spawn of evil Lunar magic aid them. Do you seek them?”
“My sword. Where is it?”
Tarsus tipped his head to one side and inspected Kormak as if seeing him for the first time. “You are a Guardian of the Order of the Dawn,” he said.
“The Order of Assassins,” the wizard added. His tone was a little hostile now.
“Such is not our function but I could understand why a wizard might see things that way.”
“That’s very generous of you,” said Tarsus.
“I see you are intent on giving this ancient reprobate cause to regret using his healing herbs on you,” said Marcus.
“If he has not broken the Law he has nothing to fear from me.”
“You are not a very wise man, Guardian,” said the guard captain.
“Most probably true,” said Kormak, “and I have a feeling you are going to explain exactly why to me.”
“You are still sick and weak and you are threatening the only man present who can heal you.”
“I am threatening no one,” said Kormak, “and only a fool would threaten me.”
“He is correct, Marcus,” said the wizard. “Those who kill guardians rarely live long thereafter. His order is a most vengeful one and they have their ways of finding those who have done them wrong.”