The Raven travelled for three days through countryside that changed by degrees from flat woodland, to rough shrub and finally to barren hills, moors and valleys. The weather settled into a cycle of sunshine interspersed with cooling cloud blown up by occasionally strong winds but throughout it all, the temperature had a warm evenness, even at night, and riding was comfortable.
They saw no one.
Approaching Septern’s house across a high moor, the ground changed from heather-strewn hard soil to lifeless dusty earth. In the distance, the air shimmered, light shining through a thin film of what looked like dust whipped up by the wind. The horses moved easily over the flat ground and all around them, as far as the eye could see, the terrain was largely featureless but for the odd stunted tree or plate of rock jutting from the cracked dead earth.
‘What happened here?’ asked Hirad. He looked back over his shoulder to where the vegetation sprang up in a line almost as if it had been planted deliberately.
The Dark Mage blew out his cheeks. ‘I don’t know. The after effects of a spell battle, I should think. It’s a little like the Torn Wastes, though not as blasted.’
‘Could it be something to do with the Septern’s workshop?’ asked Ilkar, peering into the dust filled distance.
‘Possibly.’ Denser shrugged. ‘Who knows what effects an unmaintained dimensional rip might have on its surroundings.’
‘What in all the hells is a ‘dimensional rip’?’ The Unknown’s face was blank.
‘Well, basically, it’s a hole in the fabric of our dimension that leads to another one or simply into inter-dimensional space, although there’s obviously far more to it that that.’
‘Obviously,’ muttered Hirad.
The Unknown glared at Hirad. ‘And are we near enough to this dimensional thing to suffer some kind of interference?’
‘Hard to say. I’m no expert on dimensional theory,’ replied Denser. ‘What Septern might have done is anyone’s guess. Septern was a genius, but his records are incomplete.’
‘He certainly was,’ said Ilkar. He scanned the horizon in the direction in which they had been travelling. He narrowed his eyes and spurred his horse into a walk forwards. Hirad, dragging on the reins of his mare, fell into step by him.
‘Can you see something, Ilks?’
‘Nothing much,’ replied Ilkar. ‘That shimmering messes up my long sight, I’m afraid. All I can say is that there appear to be large dark shapes a little to our left. How far, I can’t say.’
‘Shapes?’ Talan was the next to speak as the rest of The Raven began moving.
‘Buildings, at a guess. It could be rocks but I don’t think so.’
‘Well let’s head for them,’ said Hirad. ‘They seem to be the only landmark we’ve got.’ Hirad dug his heels into his horse’s flanks and led the way across the plain with Ilkar at his side.
As they began to close, Ilkar added flesh to his earlier description. They were riding towards the ruin of a large mansion house and an outbuilding of some kind, probably a low barn.
‘Ruined? Are you sure?’ asked Denser.
”Fraid so,’ said Ilkar.
‘Is that bad?’ asked Hirad.
‘Not necessarily, though that certainly adds weight to the spell battle theory. Mage Houses aren’t known for being easy to knock down.’ replied the Dark Mage.
‘Except by other mages,’ said Ilkar. ‘Or Wytch Lords.’
Denser raised his eyebrows. ‘Exactly.’ Inside his cloak, his cat hissed loud enough for all to hear, poked its head out briefly then withdrew in a hurry.
‘Oh dear,’ said Denser.
‘What is it?’ The Unknown turned in his saddle.
‘I think – ‘ began Denser but a chilling howl cut him off. ‘That we are about to have company.’
‘What the hell was that?’ Hirad searched around him but could see nothing though the single howl had been taken up by more throats.
‘Wolves,’ said Ilkar. ‘Big ones.’
‘No, they’re Destranas.’ The Unknown chewed his lip.
‘Destranas? Then that means Wesmen.’ said Talan, loosening his sword in its scabbard.
‘Yes,’ confirmed The Unknown. ‘We’ve got to make cover. Where are they coming from?’
‘The outbuilding.’ He pointed and now they could all see, through the swirling haze that made up the horizon, large moving shapes in front of the black and distant barn.
‘We’re in trouble,’ said Richmond.
‘Well, spotted,’ muttered Hirad, staring around him for a way out. There was none.
‘All right,’ said The Unknown. ‘Let’s circle north and west and come to the buildings another way. We might lose them that way and at least we’ll have made up some ground.’ He caught Hirad’s eye and added, in a low voice. ‘Although what good it’ll do is open to debate.’ He pushed his horse into a gallop leaving the rest of the party temporarily trailing in his wake.
For a time it looked as though The Unknown’s idea had paid off. Hirad could see the dogs heading away from them, their handlers following more leisurely on horseback. He spurred his horse on, glanced behind him again and suddenly the beasts were so much nearer and closing with appalling speed. They were huge, four feet high at the shoulder and their howls and barks tore at the air and stung the ear.
‘Unknown!’ called Hirad. ‘We can’t outrun them. Look.’ The big warrior turned, looked and immediately wheeled his horse to a stop.
‘Everyone dismount!’ ordered The Unknown. ‘Ilkar, Denser, take the horses and let them loose if they are what the dogs want.’
‘They won’t be,’ said Denser. ‘If the Wesmen are here we’re in bigger trouble than I thought. I’m going to try something. Only disturb me if you have to.’
‘What – ?’ began Ilkar.
‘Don’t ask.’ said Denser and he turned his eyes to the skies and spread his arms wide.
‘We’ll have to protect him,’ said Hirad. The four fighting men formed a loose semi-circle in front of Denser, the rhythmic tap of The Unknown’s sword on the ground a metronome for Hirad’s heart beat. Behind them, Ilkar slapped at Denser’s horse and it trotted away with the others. The elf took up station to Denser’s rear, his sword ready as the first of a dozen Destranas tore into the waiting quartet as the Wesmen, four of them, galloped up.
Fangs bared and flecked with foam, a huge dog leaped at Hirad’s head. Surprised by the distance and speed of the jump, the barbarian swayed reflexively aside and put his sword arm across his face. The animal caught the side of his head and both tumbled to the ground.
The Unknown, his blade before him took a squat stance and waited as a black Destrana, tongue lolling, sped towards him. As it closed, he shifted his weight forwards and, anticipating a jump, flicked his sword upwards and took the animal under the jaw, skewering its brain. He moved aside and dragged his weapon clear, the dead weight dropping to the floor.
Hirad had been lucky and had fallen on top of the dog. Reacting instantly, he clamped a hand on the dog’s throat as it struggled to get its paws underneath it. He dropped his sword, snatched a dagger from his belt and plunged it again and again into the exposed chest, blood jetting on to his armour. The next beast slammed straight into his back.
Talan and Richmond moved together as three animals slowed and paced towards their prey. Neither side seemed sure how to attack or defend and, in the ensuing pause, Denser’s spell came to awesome fruition. The Dark Mage, brought his arms together and crossed them, fists clenched and held at either shoulder. He opened his eyes wide, saw six dogs waiting and circling, pointed the index finger of his left hand in their direction and said one quiet word.
Ilkar swore and flung himself to the ground.
Columns of fire screamed down from the sky, six of them, each striking a Destrana square on the top of the skull. Howls of animal terror and pain split the air as the beasts were transformed to flame, dying even as they stumbled and tripped. The three dogs circling Talan and Richmond turned and fled but one ignored the mayhem behind it and grabbed Hirad’s back, bowling him over in the dirt.
The barbarian’s knife sprung from his hand. He was defenceless. He rolled over on to his back, shouting as the wound low down on his spine ground into the earth. The dog sprang forwards, lashing a claw across his chest, splitting the leather and drawing blood. Hirad scrabbled backwards but there was no escape, the Destrana loomed over him, saliva dripped in his face.
Grabbing a handful of dirt, Hirad flung it into the dog’s eyes. Distracted for a moment, the animal shook its head to clear its vision and The Unknown split its neck with a downward strike, the blade exiting the body and plunging into the ground scant inches from Hirad.
Silence. The wind blew up dust and bent the sparse weed. In front of Ilkar, Denser slumped to his knees, breathing hard as sweat poured down his face and his limbs shook. Talan and Richmond ran over to where Hirad still lay on the ground. The Unknown cleaned his sword before walking over to retrieve the barbarian’s weapons.
Ilkar got to his feet, brushed himself down and looked at the still burning carcasses of the wolves struck down by Denser’s magic. He didn’t know whether to congratulate the Dark Mage or rebuke him. Hellfire. Gods above. No wonder he was on his knees. He did neither, trotting past Denser on his way over to Hirad. He could see the remaining dogs and their handlers still running away from them and the barn. The barbarian was being helped to a sitting position by Richmond. He was pale and obviously shaken.
‘How is he?’ he asked Talan.
‘He’s been better,’ replied Hirad. ‘Can someone help me off with my shirt?’
‘Not yet,’ said The Unknown. ‘We need to get to cover. Can you ride?’ Hirad nodded and raised an arm which Richmond took, helping him to his feet. They moved to Denser who had still not stood up. Behind him, the horses were ambling back in a group.
‘You all right Denser?’ asked Richmond. He looked up and nodded, a wry smile on his face.
‘We have to stop the Wesmen,’ he gasped. ‘We can’t let them contact the Wytch Lords.’
‘We aren’t in a position to stop them right now,’ said Richmond. ‘Hirad’s hurt and we have to get to the barn.’
‘Where did they come from?’ asked Talan.
‘They must be camped nearby. Watching the house on the orders of the Wytch Lords, no doubt.’ He continued to scan the area into which the Wesmen had fled.
‘You took a risk there,’ said Ilkar, standing over the Dark Mage.
‘Justified, I think,’ said Denser, gesturing at the smouldering carcasses. ‘I’m learning to control it.’
‘So I see. Dangerous though.’ Something caught Ilkar’s eye and he looked away.
‘And exhausting,’ said Denser. ‘I’m not even sure I can walk.’
‘Try,’ said Ilkar. ‘Try now.’ He could feel them all look at him as he stared into the middle distance. ‘The dogs are coming back.’
‘Richmond, get the horses,’ ordered The Unknown. ‘Ilkar, see to Denser. Hirad, with me.’ Ilkar pulledDenser to his feet, the Dark Mage having to cling on to the elf’s cloak. With mounts spurred to a gallop, they began the race to the barn.
For Hirad, the ride was a blur of pain. He could feel the blood pouring from the wound in his back, soaking into his shirt and leather. With each stride, his energy ebbed as he thumped in his saddle, unable to maintain a riding rhythm. His eyes misted, his vision ragged and he couldn’t properly see the way ahead. He was dimly aware of The Unknown moving close to him to hold him in his saddle. He didn’t even have the energy to indicate his thanks; it was all he could do to cling on to the reins.
Urgent orders were barked by The Unknown: the Destranas were catching them fast. They might just reach the barn before the animals overhauled them but it would be close. Richmond and Talan urged their mounts to greater effort towards the long low building. Hirad could feel his grip on consciousness slipping away. He dragged his head to one side to see Denser hunched over his horse with Ilkar shepherding him all the way. The Dark Mage looked for all the world as if he was dead.
Mustering the last of his strength, Hirad dug his heels into his mare’s flanks. The horse responded. The barn was only a hundred yards away. Richmond and Talan, having just reached it, pushed open a large door and slapped their horses inside. Moments later, The Unknown and Hirad thundered in and reined to a halt. The Unknown leaped from his saddle and Hirad slumped from his, legs folding, body sliding down the heaving flank of his horse.
‘Richmond, Talan, look after him,’ barked The Unknown.
He ran to the door and looked out. Denser and Ilkar were just yards away, the dogs almost on their heels, and rode past him into the barn. The Unknown moved a pace outside, pushed the barn door closed and slide the heavy wooden bolt home to lock it.
‘Unknown, what the hell are you doing?’ shouted Ilkar, pulling on the door which gave only slightly.
‘Korina was the last time I fail to help my friends.’ The Destranas would be on him in a few heartbeats.
‘There’s no need, Unknown. They won’t hang around here for ever,’ said Talan. The banging on the door increased.
‘They will,’ Denser voice came laced with fatigue. ‘You don’t understand what they are. The door won’t hold them.’
‘He’ll die, you stupid bastard!’ The Unknown could hear the shouts of the barbarian as he squared up to the dogs.
‘We’ll see, Hirad. We’ll see.’ The huge dogs ate up the distance, one, a pale silver-grey slightly ahead of the other two, one jet black, the other was another shimmering shade of grey. The Unknown tapped the tip of his blade on the ground and breathed deep, knowing his first strike was vital. With the front animal two paces away, he side-stepped and brought his sword through waist-high and rising, straight into the Destrana’s mouth.
Its neck snapped and its jaws splintered but its momentum brought it crashing into The Unknown’s shoulder. Man and beast fell against the door, the timbers groaned and The Unknown could hear someone kicking at the inside and then angry words.
Winded, the big warrior shovelled the dead animal from his legs and started to rise but the others were on him so quickly. The grey one locked its jaws on to a shoulder plate, the other plucked at his helmet with a massive paw.
With a roar, The Unknown jabbed forwards one-handed and sliced into the grey’s right hind leg. The limb collapsed but the mouth hung on, teeth crushing the metal plate ever further as hot breath fired into his face.
The unharmed dog clouted The Unknown’s head again and he could feel himself weakening. His helmet was dashed from his skull, strap biting deep as it snapped. He choked and swung his blade in desperation, feeling only hilt and glove contact flesh. Snatching it back again he felt the metal plate on his shoulder give a little more as the crippled beast shook its head from side to side. Waves of pain washed over The Unknown and the black Destrana howled, sensing victory. The noise cleared his head for a moment and he drove his blade deep into the beast’s throat, its exultation drowning in a fountain of blood.
As the sound died away, the plate gave out and huge jaws closed on flesh and bone. The Unknown screamed in agony and his eyes dimmed. His blade was wrenched from his hand as the dog pulled him onto his back. He whipped his fist into its face time and again but the fangs held firm as his blood flowed into the dirt.
The dog pulled its head back and lashed in a claw. The Unknown’s throat was torn out and as his strength drained away, his head fell back. With a crack of breaking wood, the barn door opened inwards and a blade flash across his fading vision. There was the thud of a body beside him.
It was enough.