3. The Waste

Ashra Kodiu, once seat of Elvin power, now lay a ruin in the Great Waste. The dozen hunters of Prect had scouted before Greth was certain enough that the goblins had actually migrated north. Ashra Kodiu was a prize they could rarely hunt.

They scavenged during the daylight hours, then retreated into one of the least damaged structures in the exact center of the city. It seemed safe enough, so Greth even permitted them the luxury of a fire. The chamber was high ceilinged and well screened from outside observation.

The hunt had gone well. They had found several old elvin swords, some shields and armor, and most importantly enchanted jewels.

The best had been discovered in a bespelled cache deep in the warrens. Finding the cache alone had made their mission worthwhile; especially, since it would likely be a long time before they ever got another chance to raid here.

Greth gripped his sword hilt and rose before his men. “Tomorrow we will continue the Hunt. But I want the watch doubled! The goblins love this city and are likely to have left a few surprises for us!”

The others nodded, prudence was a necessary quality in successful hunters. Fighting goblins and others of their ilk was not the best strategy, not if they wished to see their home of Prect again anytime soon.

The fire burned low as Greth slept. Then something woke him and the guard on duty shouted a warning and pointing toward the far wall. An arched alcove was glowing and wind now began to whistle forth.

Pulling his sword from its sheath, Greth readied himself, fearing he had made a terrible error in choosing this place. A figure was propelled out of the absolute darkness of the elvin gateway and fell hard on the stone floor.

The chamber was momentarily bright with light from the staff that the intruder clutched in his hand, which slowly tumbled out of reach. Greth and his hunters stared in wonder at what the sudden intense light had revealed. It was a man.

There was a terrifying roar and something else bounded from the gateway. At the mere sight of it, Greth yelled and charged. The sword’s touch raised smoke on the creature’s scaled but leathery hide. It shrieked at the presence of the bane metal.

The hunters’ blades were all of the same discolored alloy that elvinkind abhorred. The wyvern roared once more as it found itself under attack on all sides. It struck and one of Greth’s fellows was knocked aside.

Another quickly took his place as the beast leapt over them, trying to get at its unconscious target. Greth slammed his sword upward. With a scream, the wyvern fell short of the man and the hunters hurried to block its path.

The fight raged on and on. A second, then third hunter, fell back, clutching injuries as Greth began to gasp for breath, tiring. Pulling out his knife, Greth hoped the stranger would appreciate their efforts, then ran and leapt upon the wyvern’s back. It bucked as he edged forward and thrust his dagger to the hilt into the wyvern’s skull.

It shrieked in pain, staggered a step, then abruptly seemed stronger. Incredibly it would not die. It knocked him off its back, its eyes blazing with unholy fire as it ignored Greth and his fellows, focusing exclusively on its fallen prey.

The staff glowed ever so faintly from where it lay, just centimeters from the unconscious man’s out-flung hand. It quivered, began to shake as the wyvern stumbled forward, closing on its target. The staff rolled across the ground and came to rest against the man’s fingertips.

Then the staff flared and a charge like lightning arched to the protruding hilt. With a shrill scream of agony, the wyvern convulsed, then fell dead. Smoke rose from it as the staff’s glow diminished. There was a startled silence for a moment, then groans as Greth and his companions slowly regained their feet.

“Is everyone all right?” Greth asked.

They stared back at him, then they all looked incredulously at the injured man and his now quiescent staff.

“I’m fine,” Alrex muttered weakly as a blue flame played across the gaping wound, which would not close at his side. Carwina, visibly perspiring from the exertion of maintaining the healing chant, was preventing further blood loss.

“No, you are not,” Master Ofran replied, looking at Stenh.

The Highmage rasped, “You do not understand…. I have no time for this.”

Stenh frowned, “Can you tell us what happened?”

“No time for this… There are things I must do,” the Highmage rasped.

“The only thing you must do, my friend, is rest,” Ofran advised, knowing that the injury was grave. Wyvern borne wounds were notoriously difficult to heal; many faced a painful lingering death from such wounds.

“Gwire is safe,” Alrex whispered. “I can feel it.”

Stenh frowned, “What are you talking about? Of course, Gwire’s safe. The legions are allied with the Rangers, after all. The Northland border is well defended.”

Alrex blinked in surprise, “Rangers?”
Stenh looked at the healer, “Can you help him?”

“I could do more at the Healers Hall.”

The mage shook his head, “Any rumor of the Highmage being incapacitated must not be allowed to leak! It could set off a panic!”

Alrex lay back and frowned, “Rangers…”

The healer frowned, “Stenh, I must fetch my colleagues downstairs.”

Alrex coughed, “No need… I know what must be done… The Demonlord will be livid, realizing what I have wrought.” He coughed again. “His victory is no longer assured…”

Stenh gestured for the healer to stay and rushed to send up the other healers, faintly hearing the Highmage say, “I must live long enough to see this through.”

“Alrex?” Ofran muttered, then frowned as he heard the Highmage begin to chant.

Carwina abruptly stopped her chanting and gasped, “Father, please! Please, do not do this!”

“What is happening?” Stenh asked as he returned, after shouting for the healers. Behind them ran his kind hearted but rather useless apprentice, Aaprin, who Stenh used as a personal errand boy, knowing that the elfblood youth had not a lick of mage talent. Yet his loyalty more than made up for it.

Alrex’s chanted spell was no down to a whisper.

“Father,” Carwina begged. “Please, don’t…”

“Alrex, give us a chance to heal these wounds!” Ofran pleaded.

“Please, Father, let us help you!”

The two younger healers had took up the chanting, relieving Master Healer Ofran, so he could try to stop what Alrex had put in motion.

Buy the spell was complete and Alrex took a deep breath. “I am the Guardian,” he rasped. “I am too old to battle as I must… My death must not be a victory for the Demonlord.”

“Father,” Carwina cried.

He smiled at her. “I do what I must,” then he opened his hand, revealing an ancient stone rune. The rune had the image of a rearing unicorn embossed across it. It pulsed with darkness, then that darkness welled outward instantly covering his palm and expanded outward around him.

The healers gaped and retreated, desperately maintaining their chant as Ofran and Stenh stared.

“Speak with the Empress…” Alrex muttered. “The Gate shall hold my death at bay – allowing me the time I need to impart gifts that shall assuredly be to the Demonlord’s rue.”

Tears flooded the elvin woman’s cheeks as the darkness seethed as it covered her father. He vanished within an opaque cocoon, which was impossibly an extension of the Gate itself.

A piece of the Highmage’s spirit fled from his enchanted body. It left the capital and flew free, heading eastward. It quickly left the Empire, crossed the clouds that hung above the Crescent Lands, and as the morning sun rose it came to the Barrier Mountains.

As it ascended over the peaks an elderly man looked up from his tent and gasped. The spirit hardly paused, tasting a comforting presence unfelt in many years. ‘I seek him. Must seek him. He must come. Must!’

“Alrex, what have you done?” the old man whispered as that bit of spirit sped past and descended into the Great Waste, seeking, searching amidst the desolation, where nothing of humanity or elvinkind should survive.

The spirit searched for signs of the source of the paradox – the one hope left.

None of the hunters had been able to touch the glowing staff. Each time one tried, there had been burned. Finally, Greth hit upon an idea. He skinned the wyvern of its magical hide and wrapped the staff in it.

“We must hurry. The Demonlord will summon his minions here.”

The hunters dressed the unconscious man’s wounds then carried him away from Ashra Kodiu. Many of them were bandaged, yet they had their prizes. Greth carried the staff, which gave off not the faintest bit of light now. The wyvern hide seemed to shape itself around the crystal form. Soon, the staff began to appear as if merely wood. The hunters looked at him aghast. “It is all right. Wyverns are masters at disguising themselves with their surroundings. Now we know their secret.”

Something unseen arrowed across the desert, Greth felt it as a breeze that suddenly swirled around their human charge.

The man groaned as it struck him full force. The hunters stared, wondering if the man was awakening. But he did not and they quickly proceeded home.

George dreamed of falling through the void and screamed in his dream, “What’s happening to me?”

But this time a voice answered, ‘You will come.’ An image arose of a strange multi-tiered city with high defensive stone walls. ‘Come you must!’

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