Genre: Western / Fantasy
Author: Thomas Rottinghaus
Purchase on Amazon
About the Book:
The Dark Wizard Lynch had lived several ages of men being loyal only to himself. But when he was accidentally rescued from certain death by the Warrior Lorn Graywullf, he found himself in the unfamiliar position of being indebted to another. To repay that debt, Lynch offers to help the Warriors reverse a spell that would wreak havoc on their World. Of course, he neglected to mention that action would serve his own interests as well. In the process, Lynch discovers much to his chagrin that he does still have a soul and a conscience.
He also discovers that the Warriors are fighting a battle they can’t win against a common enemy, a Wizard named Timon Backhelm. Only Lynch knows his complicated history with Timon, and the real reason he has sworn to kill him or be killed trying. But when Lynch realizes the extent of Timon’s power, he knows the only way to win is to initiate the creation of the Dragonspawn, a magical, physical blend of the strengths of a Dragon and an ultimate Warrior. The question is, will the Dragonspawn be loyal to those who created him, or will he simply destroy them all?
“If the powers of Light and Dark do not merge, evil will prevail.”
Alana, Mistress of Aard
Lynch watched the smaller man trailing him from the concealment of a frozen clump of oak brush. His eyes were sunken in the sockets from exhaustion and hunger, and sharp lines cut through the stubble of beard that covered his haggard cheeks. The duster he wore, the pitifully light pack across his thin shoulders, even his shoulders themselves which had been capped with muscle before he started this journey, all bore the evidence of a tremendous ordeal. He was a tall man, normally lean and sinewy, but now he seemed almost cadaverous. The hunt had been abnormally long, and prey and hunter had reversed roles more than once. At the moment, he was once again the prey. Or was he? Indeed, had heever actually been the prey? It made no difference. His smoky gray eyes betrayed more than a hint of the necessary savage cruelty of a born predator. But for now he merely waited.
The twigs of the brush he hid behind, forged in ice, were curved and hooked like the claws of a Dragon. That image dredged up memories from deep within the sediment accumulated throughout centuries within Lynch’s mind, and for a moment he actually forgot where he was. A branch snagged the threadbare sleeve of his duster and the thin cloth tore with a small, apologetic ripping sound. The sound jerked Lynch back to the present. That tiny whisper of ripping cloth made a statement, bold and clear. End it now. This ruse had gone on for far too long and it was rapidly becoming an exercise in futility for the DarkWizard. How much strength could he gain from the ceremony? Would he even rebuild his power to it’s former levels? But he found he still could not abandon his plan.
He glared at the tear ruefully with a slight shake of his head. Such pitiful garments were not befitting a Wizard of the stature Lynch had attained. Even a Dark Wizard, he thought, should be deserving of more than rags. He turned his attention back down the trail. The churned up snow where he had walked, coupled with the plume of steam from his breath in the frigid air, pointed out his location like a giant flaming beacon. The smaller man who trailed him had stopped four hundred yards away and was staring in his direction. Somehow that pleased him, that his adversary was so utterly competent in his task. This one was better than all the rest. He had been pursued relentlessly over a period of time and space that would only confuse most mortal minds, and still the man in gray followed him. And now he had no choice but to let the hand play out. He lunged out from behind the brush and broke into a purposely awkward run through the calf deep snow.
Some perverse instinct that allowed him to survive despite countless efforts to prematurely end his existence warned him and he jerked his head to one side. He felt the passage of the bullet before he heard the report. It whipped through the hood of his duster, tore a shallow furrow from the bone of his skull and took a chunk from his right ear. It sounded like a cannonball had detonated inside his head. He catapulted forward to his hands and knees and pitched face first into the snow. He lost his vision completely for several seconds, and when he regained it black spots danced across his frozen surroundings. His ears rang as he reached around with agonizing slowness to tentatively explore his wound and he simultaneously raised his face from the stinging iciness of the melting snow where he had fallen. Warm blood ran in rivulets down the side of his head and neck and an alarming amount stained the snow in the indention left by his face. He was hit and he was down. Yet that also pleased him. He had been hunted before, but this one was truly amazing! The smaller man’s breath came in great clouds of escaping steam from the last mad dash up the trail and he still had almost pulled off an impossible shot. But the man who called himself Lynch was also pleased because he knew there would be no more near misses. He had watched that very morning as his pursuer had ruefully tapped the last grains of powder from his horn and then sat studying the last of the round lead balls from his possibles bag. He had no more bullets and no more powder to stoke the long rifle he carried. Now they were on even ground, and as he lay there bleeding in the snow, Lynch grinned his feral grin.
Lynch cocked his head at the pale yellow sun as it arced across the cloudless sky. The timing was not quite right. Soon, but not just yet. He gathered his strength, struggled to his feet and bowed with a flourish, even though that made his head swim alarmingly and blood cascaded down his neck. He rocked forward and dropped down to one knee again, and as he did his vision went blank once more. The Dark Wizard felt a momentary thrill of fear, then his vision returned. He laughed mirthlessly as he struggled to his feet and resumed his torturous run, giggling maniacally and weaving like a dockside drunk.
“Son of a bitch,” the smaller man blurted in amazed disgust as he watched Lynch escaping yet again. “May the gods damn his black heart!”
He spat into the snow and tried to calm his racing heart. Now it was his turn to ruminate. How in the name of Aard, the Mountain God, did that bastard keep going? But he knew. Oh, yeah. He knew. It was the Dark Magic which fueled his quarry’s body and gave him unnatural endurance. Even so, he felt enormous respect for the Dark Wizard Lynch. He had hunted down more than his share of hardcases but Lynch was by far the hardest of the lot.
He stared at the place where he had spat in the snow, and hated it for the bright red around the edges of the tiny hole where it had melted through the top layer. He had resorted to Dark Magic himself, even though it was strictly forbidden. Just one simple spell, when he realized this was the last leg of a terribly long race. And he’d had the bastard in his sights and let him get away. Now the Dark Magic was showing its price. Was it worth it, he wondered, to give up his own life to end another? His chest ached so badly he could barely sleep even when he allowed himself the time to do so, and he awoke at regular intervals when sleep did overtake him, coughing up bright red splashes into the snow. That one spell was eating away at his guts as surely as a wolverine on a fresh kill. The price of Dark Magic was high, for one who didn’t give themselves entirely to it. Perhaps it was even higher for those who did embrace it and received near immortality, only to lose their soul. Whatever, he thought. It didn’t matter any more. Nothing mattered except this last hunt. He muttered the rune from memory, and felt strength flow back into his muscles like molten metal. Then he resumed the chase.
Lynch glanced back only once, just to make sure the man in gray hadn’t given up. That would not suit his plans at all. Now that the hunter behind him had lost his ability to end the chase at long range, Lynch wanted him to persist. The man in gray had something he wanted. All he needed was the right place and the right time. Two agonizing miles further along, he found it.
The snowy plain came to an abrupt end, interrupted by a massive glacier towering hundreds of feet into the air. It ran several miles in each direction. But what interested Lynch the most were the fissures ranging from six inches to six feet wide that burrowed into the bowels of the glacier. After another glance at the sun, he entered one of the wider ones and ran onward. Sound from the outside was curiously muffled, while sounds from within were amplified. The glacier creaked and groaned like a living thing, and Lynch felt a moment of unease. He had a brief but extremely vivid vision of being digested by some massive creature while he was still alive. He stopped, and peered upward. Far above he saw a sliver of blue sky and a shadow that flickered over the chasm. Fear, usually a foreign emotion to the man called Lynch, wrenched his guts. He paused. His overdeveloped sixth sense was working at a frantic pace now. There were worse things afoot and on wing in the World than he, even though they had given him a wide berth to this point in his career, and Lynch had no desire to meet any of them at the moment. His hands were full with the bounty hunter on his trail.
Shards of ice rained down on him. He lowered his gaze and plunged ahead. After another three hundred yards the chasm took a right turn and Lynch stopped, his lungs working like a bellows. Sweat beaded his brow. His head ached and his ear stung like fire and blood stained his cheek and neck. He fumbled within one cavernous pocket and withdrew a limp bandana, which he tied over his mangled ear. Then he drew his sword with trembling hands and waited.
The ritual he intended to complete had certain requirements, and one of those was that the kill must be fresh, and it had to be completed by the light of the moon. Kill too soon and it would all be wasted. But he had waited for so long for this moment he had to force himself to be patient. A giddy excitement overtook him, and he felt a stirring of physical arousal.
He heard the man in gray long before he could possibly have been that close. The ice canyon played tricks with the sound and Lynch became more agitated by the minute. His eerie gray eyes darted from side to side and his breath came in short, silent gasps. Finally he could take it no more. He darted back around the corner, his sword held at the ready. And he nearly dropped it in surprise. Two small children skipped along the bottom of the chasm, hand in hand, laughing as they came. Their eyes were bright and full of life and their cheeks were rosy from laughter. Lynch was astounded. The children drew even with him, and their eyes turned a fiery red and their rosy cheeks elongated into narrow snouts lined with sharp teeth. They lunged for him as he fell backwards, his legs flailing against their thrashing bodies. He slammed into the wall of the ice chasm and needles of pain shot up from his thighs as they chewed through his breeches. Razor sharp, sparkling white teeth ground into the flesh of his thighs and chewed upwards towards his balls. He threw a desperate punch into the side of the nearest one’s head, and as it fell he slashed his sword across the second one’s throat. Warm blood sprayed up his forearm and, for a moment, the child’s face returned. But these creatures didn’t know who they were dealing with. Lynch drew his blade back and skewered the second without a moment’s hesitation as it, too, turned back into a childlike being. He grunted as he rose to his feet, anger blazing through him as he saw his tattered leggings with his own blood seeping through them. The children’s bodies shimmered against the glaze of ice then began to shrink. In moments two field mice scampered between his legs as Lynch stared. Suddenly, his head was forced back from the sudden pressure of an icy cold blade. Lynch dropped his own sword and coolly regarded the man who held his life in his hands. The man in gray’s mouth was rimmed with red, and a tiny rivulet of blood seeped down the whiskers on his chin to drip silently onto the pristine ice. His eyes burned with single minded intensity, and just a touch of madness.
“Gotcha,” he said hoarsely.
Lynch gave an almost nonexistent nod. He indicated the passage of the field mice with the barest glance and uttered one word. “You?”
The man in gray nodded. “Transfiguration spell. I have to know one thing before I kill you. Who are you?”
Lynch didn’t answer.
The blade slipped under the skin of his throat as the man in gray increased the pressure on it. “I really don’t think I have much time. Who are you?”
A coughing fit wracked the man in gray, but his blade hand was steady. The blood running from his mouth was now a thin steady stream.
Lynch grinned. “You used the Dark Magic to catch me. Bravo! I applaud your determination.”
“Shut up.” The man in gray wheezed. “I ask, you answer. Who are you?”
“Since I am about to die, what can it hurt? I am Lynch, Warlock and Executioner, Dragonrider and Thief.”
“You killed my family,” the man in gray stated in a voice that was already lifeless.
“Perhaps,” Lynch acknowledged. “I kill a lot of people.”
Lynch considered that for a long moment, then shrugged. “It’s just what I do. And,” he added as an afterthought, “I’m good at it.”
“Now you’ll die for it,” the man in gray said coldly. He steadied himself for the final thrust.
“Wait,” Lynch said.
It was more of an order than a request. Despite the hatred which burned in his eyes, the man in gray stayed his hand.
“Since I am about to die, I’d like to know who you are.”
The man in gray snorted, and blood erupted from his nose in a fine spray. Flecks of it stained the worn lapel of Lynch’s duster and peppered his cheeks. He didn’t flinch.
“I just want to know who killed me, that’s all. Before…”
The man in gray nodded in understanding. “Before I die and my name dies with me. You know the Dark Magic will kill me soon enough.”
He hesitated, and Lynch thought he had lost that last gamble. Then the man in gray blinked back tears.
“My family name is Roark. I was hired to hunt you down, but I’d have done it for free. I’m Ned Roark”
“Ned Roark,” Lynch repeated very softly. He slowly raised his left hand and laid it on Ned Roark’s grizzled cheek, and Roark knew he had lost. With his thumb Lynch tenderly wiped away the tears which trickled down through the beard stubble and washed a trail through the grime. “Ned Roark,” he repeated. Roark felt the crushing weight of the spell which Lynch cast using his own name. Lynch casually reached inside his cloak and withdrew a long knife, then plunged it into Ned Roark’s stomach. Ned tried futilely to slide his sword home, but he found he couldn’t move a muscle. A long, sighing moan escaped his trembling lips. Lynch angrily knocked Roark’s blade aside, ignorant of the gash it tore in the side of his neck.
“You’re a fool, Ned Roark. Never tell anyone your true birth name,” he slammed the smaller man backwards into the opposite wall and held him upright. “Tell me, Ned Roark, who hired you?”
“Elander,” Roark groaned. He looked down at the haft of the knife which protruded from his stomach. All his strength ran out with his life’s blood. Tears of frustration welled up in his eyes. “Goddammit. Thirty years I trailed your sorry ass. But it don’t even matter that I failed. They’ll keep comin’ forever. One of ‘em will nail you, you murderin’ son of a bitch.”
A shower of ice rained down on them. Lynch glance upward, irritated. He caught the flash of a shadow as it hurtled over the abyss and disappeared. He grunted an obscenity, then grabbed Roark by the collar and dragged him out of the chasm. To his surprise, the smaller man was still alive and conscious when they reached the snowy plain. A crimson trail marked their passage.
Roark’s words in the chasm cut through the fog in Lynch’s brain. The smaller man had said “they” would keep coming. He released Roark’s cloak and the smaller man dropped to the frozen snow with a lifeless thump. His head lolled to one side. Lynch frantically shook him.
“Who will keep coming forever?”
Roark smiled a sickly smile. He whispered something. Lynch bent down closer to hear
“Who are you? I mean, who are you, really?”
Lynch threw back his head and roared with laughter.
“Tell me who you are,” Roark whispered. “And I’ll tell you…”
Roark sagged onto the carpet of snow, and Lynch bent low over him, cursing under his breath.
“You won’t die on me yet, maggot.” He touched his hand to Roark’s brow and let some of his life force flow into the mortally wounded man, though it weakened him alarmingly. Roark’s eyes flew open in sudden agony.
“You’ll tell me what I want to know,” Lynch said. “Or I’ll keep you just barely alive until you starve to death.”
He slid three of his fingers through the cut into Roark’s stomach.
“Sweet Mother of God!” Roark whimpered.
“Tell me,” Lynch demanded.
“The magii’ri.” he blurted. “Elander called on the magii’ri. I’m magii’ri. The Gray Hunters are comin’ for you. Please god, just let me go.”
Lynch released his hold on the smaller man and suddenly stood. So King Elander the Good had called on the magii’ri, the race of Warriors and Wizards chosen by the gods themselves to uphold their laws. He was in the big time now. The Gray Hunters were the most ruthless mercenaries in the World. His thoughts were interrupted by a sound from Roark.
“Who are you?” the dying man croaked.
Lynch grinned. “You don’t give up, do you?”
“I’m dyin’. What difference would it make?” Roark begged.
Lynch sat behind the smaller man and almost lovingly took his head in his hands.
“Exactly. You’re dying. Why should I tell you?”
As the moon rose, he casually broke Roark’s neck and held the smaller man’s head to his chest much as one would comfort a restless child, until he quit struggling. Lynch sat there until the last vestige of sunlight disappeared and under the full light of the moon he sliced open Roark’s chest and removed his heart. He muttered the necessary words, and
while the pale stars winked at him from the distant heavens, Lynch ate it.
He awoke later beside the burned out ashes of his campfire and sat shivering in his bedroll. The light of the moon reflected off the stark whiteness of the snow covered tundra to give the landscape a surreal glow. Branches extending from fir trees became the
curved claws of Dragons, and distant clumps of oakbrush seemed to shift position like a pack of wolves closing in on their prey. Lynch blinked his weary eyes. The chase had taken much out of him, physically and emotionally. The ritual at the end of it was designed to replenish his strength and make him even more powerful than before, but he didn’t feel it. As a matter of fact, he felt strangely diminished. His mind was fuzzy and he found it difficult to think clearly. Things he had known for a hundred years eluded him now. He wondered for a moment if eating the heart of the fallen magii’ri Warrior had the opposite effect of what was intended, and even now he felt that his power was draining out of him and he had no way to stem the flow. The moonlight paled noticeably, and Lynch cast a curious eye heavenward. The night was still cloudless and nothing obstructed the moon, but the darkness grew more oppressive by the minute.
Lynch grudgingly shrugged out of his blankets and rose to gather fuel. The frigid night air hit him like a solid wall and he cursed through his clenched teeth. The truth was he was tired. He couldn’t argue that. He was tired of running, tired of scheming, and goddamned tired of freezing his ass off on that godforsaken frozen plain. And, he thought, maybe that bullet had scrambled his brains a bit. He laid the wood in a haphazard formation and stirred up the coals under it. As he did, a shadow swept over him, and he froze. His eyes darted from side to side, but he saw nothing. He casually stretched and glanced overhead. A whisper of a shape floated across the face of the moon, and he relaxed.
Smoke rose from the pile of wood while Lynch waited impatiently for it to catch. He huddled back under his bedroll. He needed to make water, but he was loathe to leave the warmth of his blankets again. He wanted to be gone from this place, back to a city, any city, where he could have a hot bath, a hotter woman and a meal he didn’t have to cook himself. A bed would be nice too, he thought, maybe with two or three women to keep him company. Another shadow flickered over him, and Lynch distinctly felt a light whiff of displaced air. The fir branches didn’t stir. He leaned forward and blew on the embers of the fire. He could strike it with magic, but that would drain the strength he was only gradually rebuilding. A guttural croak made him lurch to his feet and unsheathe his long sword.
Just a raven, he thought. But it was still hours until dawn, and whatever made that noise had sounded bigger. A whole lot bigger. He turned a slow circle and scanned the sky. Just as he had begun to chide himself for behaving like a schoolgirl his survival instinct kicked in once again. He dropped on the hard packed snow and rolled, then thrust his sword upward as the moon was blotted out by a triangular shape at least a dozen feet across. The shocked Wizard slashed at the black shape and felt the jar of steel against bone and sinew, and warm black blood rained down upon him. The creature above him bellowed in pain as it swooped skyward, then faltered and dropped a hundred yards out in the clearing. Lynch didn’t bother lunging to his feet. He simply rolled through the snow and frantically hurled a spell at his smoldering fire. It burst into flames as more than a dozen of the hovering creatures squawked in alarm and rose, wings flapping, into the night sky.
Lynch expelled a great sigh of relief, but his relief was short lived when the creature he had wounded advanced upon the camp. The Wizard grabbed a pine knot and commanded it to burst into flame, then held his flaming torch aloft. The beast hissed in alarm and backed out of the circle of light thrown by the torch. The beast was careful to stay well out of the light, and all Lynch could see was the gleam of light reflected in its eyes. His fear was rapidly being replaced by a deep, burning, unreasonable anger, and when he was enveloped in the throes of such a mood the Wizard Lynch was a formidable adversary. His lips curled in an answering snarl each time the beast hissed at him.
Lynch thrust the torch at the beast and it hissed loudly and jumped back. As it did, a gout of fresh blood erupted from the wound in its chest, leaving an obscene trail in the virgin snow. The beast was weakening and Lynch’s desire for retribution was strong, but he felt exposed when he gauged the distance to his fire. He retreated, and the beast sank down in the snow. Lynch dragged a good sized log back to his camp site, all the while swiveling his head around to keep watch.
He built up a roaring fire, and watched as the wounded beast dragged itself farther out into the deeper darkness. It was barely visible in the fading moonlight, and Lynch watched it closely. He sat down on his bedroll and raised his shaking hands in front of his face, then laughed and lowered them to his knees. His laughter died on his lips seconds later when more of the beasts began dropping from the night sky. The night was filled with the whistling of wings and the guttural calls of the beasts. But they did not attack. Instead they advanced upon the wounded beast. It heaved to its feet then promptly fell over. The others rushed it, and in seconds the night air was filled with a hideous crunching sound accompanied by growls and shrieks of rage as the hapless wounded beast was devoured by his comrades. Some devilish vagary would occasionally cause the firelight to flicker brighter, and one or the other of the beasts would raise a bloody snout to glare with red eyes in Lynch’s direction before it lowered its head to resume feeding. Lynch gritted his teeth and settled in for a long night.
He held his sword at the ready position with both hands while the beasts enjoyed their grisly meal. After the initial rush of adrenaline subsided, Lynch analyzed his situation. He was utterly alone, thanks to the relentless pursuit of Ned Roark, hundreds of miles from another human being. And even if he had stumbled onto other people, it was highly doubtful they would help him. He actually wasn’t sure he would , or even could ask for help. Not after the way he had lived his life. He also had no idea what kind of adversary he faced. They were nameless, faceless predators that dropped from the sky, but he knew that he should be able to identify them. He wracked his brain and several times felt that he had the answer on the tip of his tongue, only to forget it again.
Lynch chuckled. The sounds of the feeding frenzy stopped briefly, then immediately resumed.
“Out of the frying pan,” Lynch whispered and chuckled again.
What the Hell, he mused. He had no one else to blame for the position he was in. He had gotten sloppy, that was when Ned Roark picked up his trail and he couldn’t give him the slip. He had also become greedy, and that was when he decided to absorb the strength of Roark’s spirit instead of just killing him. It was a mistake he didn’t intend to repeat. The next time he would kill anyone who came hunting him at the first opportunity that presented itself, and if the opportunity was right, he’d perform the ritual. Otherwise he’d just have to be content with killing them. But he had to find a way out of his present situation first.
One of the beasts abruptly wheeled away from his dinner and stalked gracefully around the perimeter of Lynch’s camp. It was careful to stay out of the light, following the edge of light like a physical boundary. In moments it was joined by several others. Lynch lunged to his feet and clutched his sword with whitening knuckles. He turned a slow semicircle in time with the dim shadows that circled his camp, waiting for an attack. It became quite obvious the beasts would not penetrate the circle of light that ringed his camp. At least not just yet.
Lynch grinned, and it was a frightening, inhuman sight. They thought he was helpless. They thought he would cower in fear until they chose to attack. They had no idea what kind of enemy the Dark Wizard Lynch could be.
With an inarticulate battle cry bursting from his lips Lynch shrugged out of his duster and charged across the barren snow. The beasts looked stupidly at the man running across the snow as if they couldn’t comprehend being attacked by such an insignificant creature. Lynch bared his teeth and delivered a vicious backhanded blow with his sword that completely severed the wing of the first beast he encountered. A guttural croak burst from its jaws as it fell sideways, vainly flapping its one remaining wing. Those closest to it dove upon it, driven by mindless bloodlust. Lynch spun and drove his blade upwards into the throat of the next beast. He wrenched the blade free with a loud grunt, then suddenly dove to the ground and rolled to avoid the wide open jaws of one of the recovering beasts. It drove its pointy snout into the snow, milliseconds behind the frantically rolling Wizard. He sensed a slight hesitation in the attack and thrust his sword skyward just in time to drive it into the beast’s open mouth and out the back of its skull. His sword was wrenched from his hands when the beast reared up on its hind legs.
“Oh, shit,” Lynch whispered.
Once again he lunged to his feet and sprinted back towards his fire. One of the enraged beasts lurched after him, then recoiled with a bellow of pain as he neared the fire. The skin on the beast’s face and neck shriveled and blistered from the light of the fire and it fell backwards into the snow. Lynch dropped to the snow next to his fire and rolled onto his back, steam billowing from his open mouth. The blood was singing in his ears and a strange exhilaration filled his being. His insane laughter echoed from the scrubby trees. He rolled to his hands and knees and tried to catch his breath as another paroxysm of laughter shook his body. Lynch slowly regained control of himself as he felt what little strength he had left seeping from his body. He collapsed into his blankets and lay there shivering through the remainder of the night while the surviving creatures devoured their fallen brothers.
The flock of bloodthirsty beasts took to the air and circled once then flew to the west before the first rays of light brightened the east. Lynch sat huddled in his blankets, bleary eyed from fatigue and with a massive headache pounding his temples. He forced his tired brain to function. What were they? Where did they come from? In all his many years, Lynch had never even heard of such a creature. Or had he? He did know what they were, he just couldn’t place it. So why did they surface now? To harass him? Or was he just a target of opportunity? Deep inside he knew that he should know those things, but it felt like pieces of him were missing.
He fashioned a bowl from green bark and scooped up snow to melt for tea. While the snow melted he walked out to examine the remains of the beasts. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and gooseflesh rose on his arms as he neared the kill site. Bits of leather-like skin were scattered about and a few fragments of bone protruded through the snow. The trampled snow was a deep, oily black. The carnage at the kill site was even more complete than he had imagined. The only remains of the beasts were the skulls and the backbones. He paced from one end of a carcass to the other. From head to tail, it had been over ten feet long.
Lynch retrieved his sword and wheeled around to return to his camp, but before he had gone two steps he reversed his course, dropped his breeches and urinated on the remains. Only then did he return to his fire. He hastily gulped his hot tea and squandered more of his magical energy conjuring up a spell for endurance. He wanted to get as far away as possible before nightfall. As he packed up his meager camp, the gleam of his captured long rifle caught his eye. Ned Roark’s rifle, crafted for the Gray Hunters by the most skilled craftsmen in the World. He thoughtfully hefted it then reluctantly wedged it in the crotch of a tree with a scrap of fur concealing it. It was a beautiful weapon, but totally useless without powder and lead. He had neither, and in all his years of searching he had not found the formula to make gunpowder. He was nothing, if not practical. He took only what he had to have to survive and abandoned the rest.
Lynch walked directly towards the south. Early in the morning he fought the urge to break into a run, but by noon he no longer had the strength to either run or fight the crazy urge to do so that still lay within his mind. He slogged along through the snow in a dazed state, shedding layers of clothing as the day grew warmer and sweat beaded his brow. He stopped often to drink from his waterskin and to fish out another piece of dried meat to chew on. An hour before dusk he was thoroughly exhausted.
As he gathered fuel for a long night, he calculated the distance he had walked that day, and figured he had walked roughly fifteen miles. Fifteen miles! Gliding along on the air currents the bloody beasts could travel that distance in less than an hour! Anger flared up within him, and when had unloaded his last armful of firewood he made one more trip into the densest forest to gather ten long, slender poles. He built up his fire and sharpened one end of the poles, then tied a crosspiece on each end to make a picket. He laid the pickets in the snow and tied a long length of rope to each then counter weighted them with a log suspended from a nearby tree. When he tripped it, the pickets would rise to a forty five degree angle. They could harass him and keep him from sleep, but it would cost them!
At midnight Lynch sat morosely brooding in his blankets, adding wood to the fire at regular intervals. His supper of a thin soup made with dried meat sat soddenly in his stomach like a lump of uncooked dough. He longed for a thick juicy steak, piled high with steaming mushrooms and sweet potatoes with a hot apple pie for dessert. A sudden spurt of saliva erupted in his mouth, and he slammed his tin cup down in frustration. How in the Hell had he gotten himself into this mess? He sighed. He had chosen his path five centuries ago. As a youth he had longed for eternal life, to drink in the pleasures of the flesh while his peers withered and faded away. And his wish had been granted, but at a terrible price. The sensations he had experienced, the tastes of life he had indulged in, were all addictive and he longed for more until it consumed him. His life had become a rat chasing its tail. His tastes grew more exotic, his demands more extreme with each passing decade. And no matter how much he indulged, he always wanted more. He laughed bitterly. How ironic was it that he, Lynch, now sat in a goddamned snow bank and yearned for something as mundane as a hot meal?
The next thing he knew he was lying face down in the snow with a ringing in his ears and something warm and sticky running down his neck. His head buzzed and his vision blurred. The bastards were back! Then it hit him. They were losing their fear of fire. Rage flowed through him.
“You sons of bitches! You want some of me? Come on then!” He leaped to his feet and found his counter weight ropes.
“Come on,” he said under his breath. “Come on back for another piece of ol’ Lynch.”
He searched the night sky, and finally saw a few flickering shadows wheeling and darting among the stars. Several of them split off from the group and headed his way.
“That’s it,” he pleaded. “Just keep coming…a little farther. A little more…come on.”
Two were gliding in on a perfect plane. Lynch grinned. This was better than a goddamned steak! He gauged the distance and released the counter weights. His first picket slammed into position and Lynch actually laughed with glee as the beasts flared their wings in a vain attempt to stop. Both impaled themselves as they went down squawking amid the sound of splintering wood and thrashing wings. The points of the pickets penetrated the beasts completely as their struggles destroyed Lynch’s newest weapon and they wheeled away from each other, biting futilely at the main beams which still protruded from their chests. They turned on each other in their agony, and with each graceful dip of their slender necks blood spurted from a newly opened wound. Lynch watched eagerly until neither beast moved any longer. Only then did he allow himself to explore the wound on the back of his head with trembling fingers, and he still kept a wary eye out for more attackers. He found a goose egg the size of his fist and a three inch gash which still oozed blood. No matter, he thought. He’d bagged two more of the bastards. A little blood was a small price to pay.
As before, the remaining creatures circled like vultures, then spiraled down to feast on their comrades. Lynch thought briefly of slipping away while they fed, but as soon as he stepped out of the circle of firelight one of the beasts hopped into the air and circled that side of his camp. He hastily stepped back into the light. So, he thought, they are intelligent, at least to some degree. That revelation did nothing to improve his mood. Lynch spent yet another sleepless night mentally sorting through all the creatures he had heard of in reality and in myth. His thoughts were accompanied by the hideous crunching, tearing sounds as the beasts polished off their fallen comrades. Dragons? No, not dragons. Not gryphons, either. Giant bats? Maybe, but still not quite.
He felt that the answer was right on the tip of his brain, but just out of reach. And even as hardened as he was, Lynch had no desire to delve too deeply into that convoluted mass. What he needed, he finally decided as dawn streaked the eastern sky, was a library. Too bad there was no such thing within a thousand miles. Nearly delirious from lack of sleep, Lynch laughed at that until tears rolled down his cheeks. The beasts glared at him one last time and he thrust his middle finger skyward in a timeless gesture of contempt. The beasts flew back toward the west. He broke camp and staggered off to the south
By midday the snow was noticeably shallower, and the air held a hint of warmth. But Lynch knew his progress was pitifully slow. The melting snow sucked at his booted feet and sapped his energy even faster than before. He had to rest. Rest, or go mad from sleep deprivation. His mind wandered. Once, in a different time, he had seen a man go nearly mad from lack of sleep. The men of that time traveled impossible distances in horseless carriages and guns and ammunition were commonplace. There were Demons there, but most of the people walked with blank faces, unaware of the evil that ran rampant right under their noses. Unaware, or maybe they just didn’t care. Demons of a different sort than those he now faced, and they made his own skill at starting trouble pale by comparison. He chuckled. At least these Demons attacked a man face to face. They didn’t hide behind catchy slogans or false promises. With a start he realized he was sitting on a snow free boulder warmed by the spring sun which had just reached its zenith. He built a fire and banked it with a huge fallen log, so big he could barely roll it into the fire. Then he slept.
He slept hard, so deep in slumber a passerby might have thought him dead. The chill of the evening awoke him, and he huddled deeper into his blankets. Then he bolted upright. Sundown. Dark. The Slayers would be back. His fire still smoldered, and he piled smaller branches on it until it crackled and roared. The sleep had done him good, but he felt logy and a headache settled in at the base of his skull.
Wait just one goddamned second. The Slayers. He knew what they were. He had no idea how he knew, but he did know. He involuntarily thought back to the other time, the time which he didn’t know was coming or had already passed. That man, the one he had watched go crazy from lack of sleep, had told him many things. He wasn’t actually supposed to talk to anyone, but Lynch had never been one to respect another’s rules. The man was already twitchy by that time. The slightest noise would cause him to lurch around and stare with bleary eyes. Finally he had just laid down and couldn’t be roused. Lynch wondered absently if he had died like that. What had amazed Lynch then and now was that the man knew him. He shook himself. What the Hell was he thinking?
He faded away again, and when his senses returned it was dark. His befuddled brain took that in and processed it. He forced himself to concentrate. He needed sleep, which he would never get at night. The solution, therefore, was to travel at night with the protection of a torch, as long as that lasted, and sleep during the day. He would regain his strength, and with his strength he would regain his power. And when he had regained his full power, nothing could stand in his way.
He clambered to his feet and found a couple of solid pine knots. He lit one from the fire and resolutely started out again, leaving the fire burning. Perhaps, he thought hopefully, the Slayers would be attracted to the firelight like moths. But that hope was dashed when he heard the telltale whistling of wings in the air above him. Panic rose within him, but he choked it down and forced himself to hold his course towards the south. But he had only gone perhaps a mile when he heard the rushing of wings and a light breeze ruffled his hair. He involuntarily ducked his head, and the bulk of the beast whooshed over him. He quickened his pace, and another beast dived on him, so close he could feel the heat of its body and smell the fetid odor of decay that clung to its leathery hide.
Lynch broke into a trot, holding his torch high like one of the champions he had heard of from yet another time. His breath came in gasps and sweat plastered his clothes to his body. It was an impossible pace to maintain, yet the beasts easily kept up. Another one dived for him and clipped the torch with its talons. It squawked in pain and rose again, but Lynch could sense that it was not seriously cowed by the flames. His legs were filled with molten lead and his lungs burned with each labored breath. The words sprang to his lips without conscious thought, and Lynch muttered them, even if it be the death of him. The power of the Dark Magic exploded within him as another tiny part of him died with it.
Strength radiated out to his extremities, and the burning in his chest was quenched. His legs pumped like twin pistons, spraying mud and snow behind him. Conscious thought deserted him. He was a machine, fueled by Dark Magic. His eyes noted when the scrub brush turned into dwarf trees and his brain processed the information, but it meant nothing. He heard the beasts crashing through the uppermost branches and sensed their anger, but still his legs beat their staccato rhythm. The whistling of their wings became fainter as they gained altitude to clear the trees, and still Lynch ran on. He ran on long after a mortal man would have crashed to the ground, vomiting blood, with his muscles twitching in death throes. Exposed roots clawed at him, rocks sliced his boots to shreds and low lying branches whipped across his face. He ran on all through that hellish night and was totally unaware when the dwarf trees slowly gave way to the towering pines and firs of a black timber forest. Finally, as morning approached, Lynch became slightly aware again. The next thing he knew, he was falling.
He awoke with a ringing in his ears and the brassy taste of blood in his mouth, lying face down on a bed of springy moss that smelled faintly of mold. He tested each of his extremities with a groan of pain and found that he could still move, but his muscles ached with a frightening intensity. Lynch groaned loudly and rolled over. Far above him there was a small square shaft of light. Where the Hell was he? He closed his eyes and tried to remember.
He remembered running like he had never run before, farther and faster than any mortal. And he remembered falling. He sat up and looked around him. He had been running from something totally unnatural, something so fierce it defied description and even now dread ran fingers of ice along his backbone. Then it came back to him. He remembered falling, and thinking at the last second that he was about to die a disgraceful death in some accident that wouldn’t even be discovered for a thousand years. Then he had struck something which yielded to his weight. There had been the shrieking of a rusty pulley, his descent had slowed, then he had crashed to the ground and everything went black. He stared at the shattered remnants of a hand elevator scattered around him. One beam was still securely tied to a tattered hemp rope. He looked upward again. Impossible. It was at least three hundred feet down. A pebble struck his shoulder, and dust wafted down the shaft.
Lynch felt his breath catch in his throat. They were there, and they knew where he was. A faintly familiar, guttural croaking sound echoed down the shaft accompanied by an eager whine. The scrabbling, grating sounds of steel hard claws on solid rock supported his sudden fear. They were trying to dig into the shaft.
He had once considered himself nearly fearless and superior to anything he might encounter. But now his self confidence was shattered and his amazing ego lay in tatters. He had never encountered anything like the beasts that trailed him. They were totally unrelenting, nearly without fear, and savagely skilled at destruction. Lynch grinned. They were kind of like him. He groaned loudly and stood up. He had one thing in his favor. They had no idea who they were messing with.
Lynch studied the opening in the shaft and gauged it against the outlines of the writhing bodies of the beasts as they tried to dig in. He estimated they would have to double the size of the shaft before they could resume their hunt. Claws and teeth against solid rock. He had some time, now he needed distance.
The first few steps were exquisite agony, and Lynch made a mental note of it to apply that principle to his own keen interest in torture. He found one of his torches where it had landed after the flight down the shaft and cast an illumination spell. Even that effort left him winded, and Lynch once again felt the thrill of fear. His power was nearly exhausted.
“This may be the end of the road, old boy,” he muttered half aloud. “What a waste. What a colossal fucking waste!” He clenched his fists in impotent rage.
He was close, so tantalizingly close, to the crowning glory of centuries of destruction. All of his plans were coming together, his allies were firmly in place and growing in power. He had spent hundreds of years honing his own skills just for the moment nearly at hand, and it was going to be spoiled by a handful of brainless creatures driven solely by instinct and bloodlust. Kind of like some people he had known. Lynch giggled.Dammit, I’m going loopy, he thought.
A larger fragment of rock struck the floor of the cavern with a dull thump. Lynch stared dully at the dark shapes of the beasts as they busily enlarged the opening into his hole. Why had his plans unraveled? It was so hard to think! A name kept floating about just out of reach. Then he had it. It was because of…Roark. Ned Roark. Before that, everything had been fine.
“Well, Mr. Ned Roark,” he exclaimed into the gloom. “You are going to pay for this. Or did you already? No matter. I’m going to hunt down your entire family, no, I’m going to hunt down every single person you ever associated with and wipe them off the face of the World. That, Mr. Ned Roark, is a promise!”
Lynch smoothed down his hair, straightened his disheveled clothes, and resolutely walked into the overpowering darkness. As he stumbled along, he focused on one thing. Roark. He had no way of knowing that, far above him, the light of the moon was steadily growing dimmer.