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The Dim Realm, Volume I

Summary

The Dim Realm, Volume I: Book One of The Resurrection Tower

When former blacksmith Corin Drey finds himself lying on his back in the midst of Orthin's Wood, he cannot imagine what has happened. The last thing he remembers is searching for Thom Blaire's wife-one of the disappeared. As he slowly sits up and looks around, he sees dead soldiers hanging from trees and other bodies scattered about the burnt forest floor. Corin knows he must find his way home-but how?

Seventeen-year-old Kara Kinfolk has an old soul. Her small town of Arrow's Flight is idyllic and quiet. But when travelers and residents start to vanish, no one appears interested in finding them. Worse yet are the nightmares, the voices that whisper to her from the shadows, and the dark house at the center of town where secret rituals are performed. Now the house, which possesses powers that prevent anyone from entering or leaving town, has begun to desire Kara for reasons she cannot comprehend. Kara knows she must flee Arrow's Flight-but how?

As Kara sets out on a quest to quell an ancient evil, she must rely on Corin and a stranger to help her follow a maze of clues that she hopes will lead to an escape-before it is too late.

The Shrieking Trees (sample chapter)

Tal Stormgren soon reached the grey tower of Orthantiac. It sat quietly in its river of fog, and only the green of diminished trees broke through its wake. Stormgren could still hear the chirping of birds, but faintly, as if sound only reached in from a great distance. This place did not suffer the living easily.

Stormgren paused. Waited. Tendrils of mist teased him, slid around him, but had yet to touch, a secret lover one step away from carelessness. One step further and he would be inside the mists, the point of no return.

Come, they beckoned. Come find out what is waiting at the end of your long road.

The full height of Orthantiac looked down on him, solemn like a greatsword plunged into the ground. A needle threatening to wound the sky, removed from the world of the living, it waited in the center of a long stone walk, where black trees lined both sides in stark procession. Tal knew that twisted trees always guarded the towers of the Black Hand, and that they were dangerous. Whether or not the towers were tended by the wizards themselves made precious little difference. Branches were clawing arms, casting shadows in the slants of monsters.

Tal let out a slow breath, rubbed with the flat of his hand at the scratch of days' worth of stubble on his jaw. It somehow comforted him in the gloom. His eyes, meanwhile, barely blinked, never wavered from the specter of Orthantiac. He knew he would have to be very, very careful here.

He reached out with a hand, deliberate more than patient, running his fingers gently through the wall of fog. His skin shivered. There was definitely a magical membrane around this tower. It was cold to the touch like a dead man's hand. It took some time to get the icy tingling to fade from his flesh after he pulled his hand away.

So is the barrier keeping things out? he wondered. Or keeping them in?

Tal sighed. Sometimes, his brain was his own worst enemy. The other times, too.

The wind bit at him then, sudden and unrelenting. It begged for his attention, as if it wanted him to turn away. But Stormgren's eyes were for the tower alone. There was no turning back. Not for him. That was just not the way he was built.

Millennia ago, a necromancer named Redim Ka had built Orthantiac, shortly after the Conclave of Wizards had been broken in two. This particular Ka, a title adopted by all arch mages of the Black Hand, was said to have been among the strongest and most mysterious of the Hand's founders.

Always have they worked from pale towers, age after age, laboratories half rooted in the lands of haunted dreams. The Black Hand preferred manipulation to brute force, hidden agendas to further themselves.

Well, something happened to good ole' Redim Ka, way back when, Tal knew, dredging his memory for any hint on how to proceed. Something very wrong. Or very right, I suppose, from our perspective. A powerful arch mage of his order, Redim Ka wanted to rewrite history, to resurrect some dark sorcery from centuries before him. Legend records that he had been close, oh so close, to succeeding.

Tal shook his head. This was going to be tricky. Why was it that anything remotely helpful was always leagues away from any other living soul?

Something happened to the old sorcerer. Something changed his mind. Redim Ka saw some absolute horror that made even a lifelong murderer and practitioner of the arts of death turn astray. He left the inner circle of the Black Hand, something few of their order choose or survive the wrath of the others to do. He became a recluse, abiding all laws of the land, distant or not.

With so much of the Territories still uncharted since the Second Age, towers of the Black Hand were difficult to find, let alone reach. Only two of a known six were located anywhere near civilization. One had faded to the barest of shadows, while another had been destroyed at the Gates of Thraxus, long ago when the Sunless Day had held sway, when magic had fled for a time.

Even the elven nomads were not sure of Orthantiac's exact location. Not that they wanted me coming here in the first place, not after what happened at the moors, but this is the tower of the one person whom I recall having once been called an 'Acolyte of the Kuurolth'.

They say Redim Ka died here, but I guess you never really know with a sorcerer.

Tal gave a brief laugh, hoping to dispel his unease. He was remarkably unsuccessful.

"The eye of Laurelin is upon you," the elves had told him after Mnimgaloth. They had not said much else, for nomads forsook speech for years at a time. But the warning had been plain enough. The elves' lack of enthusiasm for helping others was matched only by their unspoken desire to make sure you knew they could help you if they wanted to.

Orthantiac waited. Pale yet dark, visible yet hidden. It made him forget all about the elves. A thing of two worlds, dream and reality, all four Watches of the Territories let it be, and with good reason. The only other such tower that Tal had ever seen before had been from a distance, near Castle's Gate and the Lonely Hills. At its base had been a row of black trees, just like this one, each carefully planted on the corpse of a failed apprentice. Waterguard Knights, Daermorn's legions, even Cordoran thil-jorim assassins had all died trying to enter without invitation. Not a mark could be found on some of the bodies, other than the look of horror driven into them, while others had been torn apart beyond recognition.

"Hells with it."

Stormgren stepped into the mist. Time to get this over with. The haze did not frighten him nearly as much as it should have.

Once inside, Tal looked to either side of the tower's walkway. The trees all appeared normal, but they were said to be cunning, born from seeds nurtured by covens. It was also said that on nights when the moons were clear, their twisted limbs would shine white with evil glyphs. To the unlucky visitor who took sleep beneath their bows, they would whisper and caress with twisted fingers.

Come in, come in, the trees whispered, at least in what Tal hoped was his imagination. He would have to guard against unnatural sleep.

Stormgren grasped his staff tightly. The runes crafted upon it glimmered with the blue light of dawn. He shook the fingers of his free hand, as if casting off his anxiety, like a sprinter in the stadiums of Waterguard before a race.

Tal knew his first goal, at any rate. Somewhere on the grounds of Orthantiac, there would be a globe made of stone, although only those of the Black Hand really knew what the symbolism was meant to represent. Circles were annoyingly vague that way. Regardless, that sphere would be a key for summoning an entranceway to the tower. As to the key? No one could know without seeing. And no one could see without entering the mists, and braving whatever guardians took shape.

Moving down the misty path, at times Tal felt like he was walking into a waterfall. The sensation was unnerving. No chill, no dampness, but something worse. Then another tingling swept over him, this one like fingers over your grave, or the last caress of a lover who is leaving you forever. Tal's eyes were better than most, some would say much better, and well practiced, but he felt blind now, lost. The grass that crunched under his boots sounded hollow. He had not realized how pervasive the sound of the ocean's rolling tide had been until it was completely swept away. No, all was grey here, all was pale.

All is lost...

Tal shook the feeling off. There was a definite blue glow to the young man's staff now, an increasingly prominent luminescence inside this land of churning grey tendrils. Hearing voices would be bad, very bad, regardless of the source. And he had come too far to falter now.

The young man quickly reached the globe he sought. The stone sphere stood over seven feet in height, and something about it made the rest of the world fall away, as if it possessed hidden depths. Stormgren took a few steps around it, letting his eyes roam its exterior, but he found no overt corrugations, no markings denoting instructions or even language. With no doors of any kind apparent on the tower itself, this stone would somehow have to be his only way in.

Reaching out with his hand, Tal brushed his fingers lightly along the stone surface. It felt cool. Any other sensation was lost on him. Everything about the sphere bespoke of power. It did not shut things out so much as it pulled everything in. Still, most works predating the Dark Age worked either by a simple latch or spell, and he hoped this would be no exception. Unfortunately, most works predating also tended to kill whoever made a mistake.

Didn't know much coming in, he thought, but it sure seemed a lot less worrisome before I got here. Maybe next time I'll -

The young man paused. Quickly looking around. Something was different. No, not with the stone. In fact, he had been watching the stone a little too carefully.

Tal had felt alone for much of his journey. That feeling was now gone. He felt distinctly not alone.

The voices had returned, no longer imagination's domain. He recognized them as female, but he did not know their source.

(...ah, a MORSEL for us, sisters...)

Angry at himself, Tal forgot the sphere. He knew he was better than this, to be caught so easily. This was not who he was.

The voices are coming from the trees, he knew.

The trees, or at least the dark silhouettes of them, had moved. They had previously stood proud and low to either side of the central walkway, but now they had pulled towards him, sliding inwards, growing taller and looming. He had not seen the movement, for there had been no clawing or lurching, but they had somehow moved nonetheless. His senses were too well-trained to be unsure.

Exactly whose bodies were these seeds planted on?

Lined like dead soldiers to either side, stretching along the walk beneath the pale tower's glare and around the sphere, the coven of trees came inwards from all corners. There were always some trees hidden from his sight, and when he turned away, focused elsewhere, even blinked, that was when they moved. The guardians gained ground slowly, but inexorably, even if he could not see them do it.

(...a boy... I do SMELL him, I do...)

(...tasty, TASTY...)

A keening was in the air, a wailing that hurt his ears. The wind of an ocean storm would not sound so different. The keening was lurking behind the voices of dead witches, building up, almost ready to come to join them, but still the old women cackled louder, hoping for the first taste of him.

(...fresh, aye, smell HIM, sisters...)

The young man stood defensively, glowing staff at the ready, when unexpectedly, along his feet, the grey mist of Orthantiac became tinged. There was a sudden emerald cast to it, with the faintest smell of decay. Unlike the rest of Orthantiac, this was something Tal Stormgren recognized. It was what had dogged him since Waterguard.

The fetid green smoke, already evaporating, had left something behind in its wake. Tal heard a faint footstep behind him, and whirled around at the ready. He found himself face-to-face with three Daermornian orcs.

The black trees pulled back, as if waiting, watching, just as Imil Hordrim had done that dawn. Perhaps they were curious. Perhaps they were simply greedy. What was dinner without a show?

Orcs resemble humanity in a great many ways. From a distance, they could be mistaken for human, if on the large side, but such illusions did not last long. Spawned from the Breeder Pits of Daermorn, the orcish are a race born to battle, having risen to prominence back in the days of the Warlock Lord. Their dark emerald skin is toughened against both the extremes of the magma rivers and the tundra wastes of a homeland forever staving off the glaciers and ocean quakes of the Ice Wall and the Blue Sea. Heavy cranial ridges cast a shadow over their red shining eyes, and their faces were more bestial than human, often misshapen into snouts with the tusks of predators. But make no mistake - they are leaders. They are intelligent, quick and strong, belying their look of talon-nailed, fang-sharpened savages. Unholy practices had been instrumental in breeding their progenitors stronger and stronger, generation by generation.

Of the three orcs that had been sent to kill him, two were males, the other female. There was little distinction between the sexes when it came to matters of war. They were bedecked in the traditional chain-mail of Daermornian servitude, armed with weapons of black steel.

The eye of Laurelin is upon me.

Tal slowly whirled his staff before him, took their measure. Gave no ground. His staff shone with more than a slight radiance now. It knew danger. Runes once barely visible suddenly gave off an ice blue glimmer. They hovered above the surface of the staff and began to run along it.

The mist grew colder. A part of Orthantiac's amusement? But that suited Tal just fine. Cooler temperatures and haze would bother orken eyes more than his, forcing them to see as he did, rather than tracking him by heat.

Tal Stormgren knew well of orcs. And while he did not know how their mistress had found him, it did not really matter.

"Flehck," the first and largest male orc said in their High Speech, wearing a black tooth of command on a chain around his neck, "cha bo -"

The orc gagged. Stormgren had pounded it the throat with his staff, dislodging half of it in a gush of dark green blood. A swift roundhouse kick then sent the orc, already gurgling towards death, into the base of the stone sphere. Its head caved in from the force of the blow.

The other two orken fighters leapt into motion. The female orc came in with a quick jab of her halberd, the large blade at the end of the spear-like shaft built for disembowelment. Tal quickly met the blade with his staff, blocking the strike. The orc clearly had not expected this. Where normal wood should have shattered while the halberd went through it (and then his stomach and then his spine), Stormgren's staff showed not a blemish.

Yet there was no time to take advantage of this. Tal quickly had to turn aside the strike of the other orc, the twin midnight-black heads of a flail whipping at him.

Now Tal quickly gave ground, his feet stepping near the dead orc splayed across the base of the sphere. Keep your feet moving, your weight shifting, he had always been taught. His hands never stopped moving either. If ever they did, he was dead in a situation like this.

Staff whirling, its blue runelight eerie in the fog of Orthantiac, it made a faint hum. Tal knew he had gotten lucky with the first orc. These two were ready for him. But at least the unknown of the glowing staff was throwing them off for the moment.

Daermorn and the Territories have done little more than spar along the Lonely Hills for years, he thought quickly. Few of either race has had any contact with each other, outside song and story.

What little advantage he had from experience was about to be put to the test. Tal attacked again, and after a quick feint towards the female, he came in with an overhand whip of his staff at the male. He had to take the male out of the picture while there was still an advantage to be had. As lethal as the whirling heads of the flail could be, it was nowhere near as effective on defense as the halberd was, and he would need to fight the female one-on-one. In the lines of an army, accompanied by a shield, a flail's limitations might be of less concern. But here? Here it was heavily reliant on its first strike. Deadly if it connected, less likely to become embedded in its victim than other big weapons, but requiring a lot of motion and providing no real ability to parry.

Despite this, the orc with the flail did just that, surprisingly able to block Tal's attack. Tal knew there was nothing wrong with his tactic -sometimes orcs just made the difficult look easy in combat. However, with the raising of the flail's handle, the male had left its midsection exposed. Tal struck with the other end of his staff, his momentum already angled in that direction. The leather underside of the orc's chain armor offered little protection, and its ribs cracked and broke. Tal came in again quickly and smashed the orc's right kneecap.

But there was no time to finish this one off, as the female was already coming back in with her halberd. He had been fortunate not to be overwhelmed by them in the first place. Still, a line of pain seared along Tal's back as the halberd's blade caught him whirling away from both attackers. It was not a lethal cut, little more than a surface wound, but he wore no armor when he traveled. Speed would have to serve.

Tal knew that he would have to ignore the male for now, who was struggling to get up on his blown-out knee, but it was risky. Orcs were incredibly resistant to pain and oblivious to most injuries. Even this one had barely made a noise as his knee had become mush. You had to know how to hit them, and from there, you also had to understand that the only injury that stops them is a fatal one, or one that simply does not allow their body to work anymore.

Stormgren faced the female, caught her trying to flank him. Her weapons and strengths were similar to his. Both looked for an opening as they sized the other up. Tal was pretty sure she found him lacking, the same way he was pretty sure a bonfire was warm.

Orcish mantra reminds them to respect all opponents, Tal's teacher had taught him, but never too much.

Around the grounds of the pale tower, the breeze grew wild, biting and persistent. It definitely felt as if a storm was dawning, mere moments before being unleashed. Whatever force hid behind the trees, its patience was nearly at an end. Did the orcs not notice, or did they simply not care? Out the corner of his eye, Tal could see that the mists were darkening once again.

In came the halberd, slicing the air itself. Tal was forced to one side, batting away at it defensively. Again and again she jabbed in, unwilling to relinquish advantage now that she had it, and with his back now to the large sphere, there was no way for Tal to easily sidestep her. He could only hope to frustrate her into a mistake.

Stormgren lunged forward unexpectedly. When their weapons met, he kicked hard at the female orc, getting as much momentum behind it as he could. He didn't get everything, but she still was forced to bend forward where his foot had connected. While her armor prevented any damage, her breath was gone, and in that moment, Tal stepped in and brutally connected the palm of his hand with the center of her face.

Hard.

The orc's snout-nose broke in a wash of green blood and she was momentarily dazed. He went out on a limb and guessed that would count as frustrating.

Green blood...

It was then that in the ever-darkening, ever hungry, realm of Orthantiac, Tal Stormgren saw something he had not noticed before. Something crucial. He should have seen it before.

When Tal had thrown down the first orc, its blood had splattered and flown thick in a long dark sweep onto the sphere. It looked as if an enraged artist had given up on his canvas and thrown his paint in anger. Or at least, that was how it should have looked. The blood was quickly disappearing, and the stone appeared thirsty for more.

The trees swayed hungrily in the wind. Had the sphere beckoned them? All Tal knew for sure was that the world was now mute but for the howls of Orthantiac. The heavy breathing of the living souls was a tiny thing.

Something is wrong, Tal realized, I feel... sleepy...

The female orc struck again. He had almost let down his guard! While Stormgren might have been mesmerized by the dark magic, the orc appeared immune to it.

With a surge of strength, Tal pushed the orken fighter back with a powerful shove. But he knew he was running out of chances. Behind the female, the crippled male orc had his weapon ready again. He listed to one side on his remaining good knee, but he was still a second opponent for Tal to worry about.

But what happened next was almost too quick for the mortal eye. In one moment, the trees were looming, pulsing, threatening to pounce. In the next, blackened claws swept at the hapless male orken warrior from all directions. Scores of branchlike fingers swarmed into the orc and tore it apart in sprays of tissue.

The trees gave a deep sigh, pulling inwards again. Nothing of the orc's body remained to hit the ground. Amidst the fringe, laughter echoed.

This was too much for the remaining Daermornian warrior. Though born to battle and evil magic, and understanding the consequences of failure, she bolted for the borders of Orthantiac. The survival instinct had kicked in. Tal started forward instinctively, wondering why he would want to stop her, but it was already too late. The mists guarding the outskirts of Orthantiac dimmed, and she was lost from sight. But not before he heard her scream, a scream that was quickly choked off.

Tal breathed out heavily, letting the adrenaline seep out of him. He kept his eyes peeled, staff ready, but the darkness had receded once the orcs were all dead.

Orthantiac went still. The tranquility unnerved him more than he cared to admit. After all, there was now just one last meal for the trees to devour.

So why am I still alive?

But as soon as he wondered it, he thought he might already know the answer.

I am the one that spilled the first blood on the globe. I am the one who gave it a taste, offered a sacrifice. And that sacrifice was accepted.

He was not quite sure how he felt about that, unintentional or not.

But there was no time to consider it further. New movement caught his eye.

Peering through the mist, Tal saw a black-robed figure moving through the trees towards him. It hurt his eyes just to watch. The being did not glide, but simply existed in a new spot with every blink. As the figure turned towards him, a deeper darkness rolled in with it. The shadow behind the trees was not unlike an ocean fog rolling in towards shore. With every eddy, with every current, the darkness came closer.

The trees, whatever they were, were unhappy with their lord. So hungry they were, so hungry. Tal could hear them clearly now, pleading, and was surprised by how much sorrow and hunger existed atop the hate.

(...please, FEED him to us...)

(...oh, MASTER, my lord, PLEASE let us HAVE him...)

(...slowly, oh SO slowly, let us drag him down DOWN into the ground...)

The imposing figure hovering before Stormgren was old, thin and male, his face angular and white as bone. This close, his robes were black to the point where folds and creases were meaningless. His dark hair was pulled back severely and matched by a thin beard. He waved the voices off as if they were nothing, caring not one iota for their suffering. Maybe he thought they were lying. In all likelihood, he had been the one who planted them in the first place, picking each one specifically for whatever folly he had perceived them to have committed in real life, never bothering to explain himself. Not he, a revenant potent enough to pierce the fabric of world.

"Redim Ka," Tal whispered. His staff blazed with all its protective magic. Although Stormgren had already seen many amazing things in his young life, the sight of such a figure worried him. Spirits of both good and evil had indeed grown restless upon mortal soil of late. Had their reach grown longer?

"You will not enter Orthantiac," spoke Ka, his voice that of smoke, although the sorcerer nodded his head in mock appreciation of Stormgren's heroics. "It is prohibited."

Never did the stark figure stray from the boundary of the trees. As close as Tal and Redim Ka were to one another, there was as yet some vast, unbridgeable gulf that lay between.

The young man's eyes narrowed.

"I must."

In response came a short chuckle of no mirth, mocking him, always mocking him, one dark eyebrow raised slightly. "Foolish boy. You wish your mind destroyed?"

The trees quivered anew and the world grew increasingly diffuse with each passing moment. Something was coming, painful and lurching and as large as any leviathan. Something Tal had not yet seen, possibly could not see, not and keep his mind intact. Yet he could hear it the way one might hear their own heart beating. All of Orthantiac pounded, pounded, pounded. Something was coming to eat.

They say spirits live outside of time. The worst might stalk you for things not even done yet. Or things done by your loved ones. Or, lucky me, your ancestors.

Asked the wizard, as if none of it mattered, "Do you like my trees? Perhaps I should throw you to them. Tell me, boy, do you enjoy having your flesh torn off in strips? Being consumed a piece at a time? I know both experiences well. You should never have summoned me to this crossing."

The tower of Orthantiac, high above both mage and man, was now the only object left clearly visible in the gloom. The black-on-black silhouettes of the trees were restless. Even the stone sphere was gone. The keening in the air grew monstrous, a storm blown through an old oak's bows, and there were more and more voices to be heard within it. Many more. And if he ever understood those words, Tal Stormgren knew he would never return from this place.

"Tamann el sith," Stormgren spoke forcefully. His hands were clenched. He looked at nothing but the mage. Stop your trickery, was what he had said, spoken in the Nim Valar. He knew a few of the words of High Kings, a whisper or two of the ones that led to power. His family was among those who could call upon their memory with force. Hopefully, it would be enough, for he felt as if his blood was freezing into ice, and Tal was not normally given to fear. Most who knew him worried he did not give in to it enough. Tal had just never figured out how.

For a moment, the ghost of Redim Ka was angered, but the emotion swiftly passed. The sorcerer pulled his cloak close, gave a minute gesture, and instantly, the shrikes that haunted Orthantiac's garden gave some respite. But they were not held back far, and whatever gigantic being was rising behind them would stop for no one in this or any world.

"I am not the one who forbids you, mortal. Your own blood does. Do you think to hide your ancestry from me?"

A pause, nothing more.

"No."

The wizard huffed at him, now genuinely amused.

"You hide it from one of us. Bloodlines are no garment you may so casually rip away."

"I did not come here on a fool's errand, wizard," responded Stormgren. "I have no love for either Daermorn or the Black Hand. If you know my bloodline, as you say, then you should know better than that."

"Nor do I have any such love. You think the orruks a part of my design?" Ka asked, gesturing with a thin white hand to where the orcs had been dismembered. "The Daermornians surely bought your entry, hardly what I would think was their owner's intent. Oh, I do so recognize her scent from distant days. Your place in the sunlit world alone must madden her. Such coincidences in these days of prophecy, eh, boy?

"But no. You are no lackey for the Conclave. Do not deceive yourself, for I would smell their taint on you if you were, and I would stream your skin as my one banner of repentance."

Redim Ka paused.

"Which you likely knew. The Black Hand no more allied themselves with Tarsis of Daermorn than with your paltry Territories."

The wrinkled old mage leaned in close. No, there was no smell to him, little more substance than a reflection. Still, Tal had to fight every urge to recoil.

"So why do you disturb my... peace?"

There was a contemptuous quality to the last word. The trees and banshees of this macabre place were still close, so close. The blue runelight of Stormgren's staff did little to fend them off, try as it might. Tal knew that his response would decide his fate.

A soldier may drink himself ill, swearing to the Mother and Father above that he'll never drink again. But he does. He always, always does. The vice is too hard to break. But that was not the case with Ka.

Said Tal slowly, feeling his way, "We are on the brink of war, and I am told, sorcerer, that an 'Acolyte of the Kuurolth' is at the heart of it. This Acolyte seeks some manner of resurrection. I believe it will occur in a place called Olorim-Thul, though I do not recognize the name, and I know a great deal of our history. This Acolyte, it was called a Glamyrie, a skinshifter from legend. I know little more."

It sounded so flimsy an excuse when he spoke it aloud. Yet as he did, Stormgren realized that no more was required. With each passing word, the mage had shrunk into himself. A lost old man, full of fear, had replaced the terrible wizard. It was not pleasant to behold, although Tal felt little (if any) pity for Redim Ka. The list of this wizard's crimes had been long. Centuries did not mitigate that fact.

Redim Ka almost turned away. Almost. But he stopped, caught like a kite in a tree. This wizard had been reputedly nothing if not willful. He looked again to the young man. Was that defiance of some kind?

"Listen to me so very carefully, boy," uttered the mage finally, voice brittle but still sounding some slender note of strength, "for there will be no second chances. In my days, I walked many a shadowed path into the Beast of Terror's maw. I sold portions of my soul to unveil secrets best left unearthed. I was left broken many times, but my own corruption, of rituals stinking of the Vile, repaired me time and again. I was never destroyed, but I was surely Damned, and not without Kindred. They most assuredly will not want me speaking with you."

The sorcerer sighed, almost longingly. It was disturbing to behold.

"Yet never did I waver in my quests. Never. And I feel I have earned something for it."

The wizard pointed one of his long, gnarled fingers out at the young man. It resembled a branch, perhaps one of the very ones that had pulled the orcs apart, that had feasted so gleefully. The trees mimicked his movements.

"I will help you."

"Why?"

The young man felt it important, somehow, to know this, unsure of why he felt that way. Yet he received no answer. Perhaps none was needed, and certainly, none seemed forthcoming.

"Listen well. Whether understanding finds you or not is of little consequence to one such as me. All you must understand is that it is thin here. Thin is not merely attractive to young girls in their party dresses. No, when a physical place - a piece of the world - is thin, that is a dangerous thing. Orthantiac is not the only place where one world is stretched thin to claw at another. And there are so many ways."

Redim Ka gestured at Orthantiac grandly. A proud parent, perhaps?

"The same way this tower of mine is chained, there are other chains in this world. To begin, you must break a particular chain that Daermorn has crafted, a ritual, whereas this Acolyte and others will stand in your path. Choose your comrades well, for it will do the same. Already your enemies know all who may serve the Black, while you are but one of the White.

"The Five begat the Seven, and so the Chain of His Rule began. You will hear that phrase often. It is the mantra of a very dark book. The Black Book, the bible that Tarsis gave Daermorn. And it is the basis of a ritual even I myself do not fully comprehend to its end."

Without warning, the wizard sliced his hand through the air. His fingers were twisted into claws and he smiled wickedly. Tal had brought up his staff immediately in defense, but the attack was not against him. Instead, the long finger-nails of Redim Ka sliced open the air itself, and the world appeared cut for a moment. The wound bled light, the sort that might stream from behind a cloud when the sun sets red. Tal was sure the world screamed, but a moment later, the rift was closed. By the world by or the sorcerer, he was never sure.

"Yes, so thin, so very, very thin..." sneered Ka.

The wizard produced a piece of paper, something he had caught in the hole in the world. It was old, torn from some dusty, aged tome.

The wizard seems quite taken with himself.

"Oh, the two meddlers I have stolen this from," the specter was tittering. "One who chases you, one who awaits. So close they are, and yet more than one manner of chasm separates them. And here I have stolen this out from under their very noses."

"Ka?" Tal prompted.

The old wizard finally remembered the young man's presence. He clicked his tongue in delight, turned his eyes towards him.

"Old tomes are dangerous things. You know that, don't you, boy? You more than most. And in some tomes, pages are writ that contain such vileness you cannot conceive. The ideas that are brewed on the grounds of war would torture you just to hear them. The acts that come forth are never the match to the ideas... the abominations... that spawn them."

The sorcerer handed the solitary page to the young man.

"Here is the help you have asked for."

Tal half-expected the page to sail through his hand, as insubstantial as was the sorcerer before him, but it did not. It sailed down onto his waiting palms, where it felt more like dried skin than parchment.

"You tore this page out of the Black Book?"

"I was always meant to, I think. And I shall surely pay.

"Take heed, for even as we speak, your Acolyte of the Kuurolth does not know it is the time for its greatest of rituals to begin. Oh, it hears the warmongering, I suspect, but it pays no heed. After all, it has heard it all before. It knows that Daermorn has become a stagnant thing while the rest of history courses forward. A country that waits for its past to return where others seek the future. A beaten dog no matter its bright new collar.

"But before you can get to the Acolyte, it will know differently. It will know it is time, and there is no stopping that from happening. You may know your danger before it strikes, but you were never meant to prevent it from beginning."

Ka's smile was a frightful combination of exultation, horror and pride. Pride most of all.

"Something will happen. Something will set that most terrible Acolyte's gears in motion. And all you can hope to do, I think, is slow it down.

"Now, leave me."

The speaking was apparently over. Tal had been dismissed. The mage and tower were receding, fading. He could hear the ocean again, while the sun's warmth finally slid along the back of his neck.

The wizard whispered, "The Black King with his four gold eyes... I have no wish to see him in my dreams any longer. I knew him as both mortal and as god, and while some things change, many more remain the same. Cruelty is one of them. I never want him to escape his tower. His darklings forever remind me that I should never have betrayed him."

Tal looked down at the page his hands. Sunlight crept over it, making the contents all the more clear. Or lack thereof, in this case.

"It's blank!" Tal yelled at the specter. "This page is blank!"

"You do not know how to read it. After the days pass, when you are not alone, look again..."

"Wait, there is more I must ask!"

"Foolish, foolish child, you already know too much. The dim is your future! The pale is your escape! Time is of essence, but it is not your ally. And, oh, my jailer is angry, as all jailers are!

"Now run, boy! Run!"

Tal tried to take breath, but all air was gone. This was no place for the living. The realm of Ka had pulled back from the world, and the living shadows darted away before the greater blackness that ruled them. From the emptiness, a great skull taller than the tower itself burst out of the sky, a terrible thing engulfed by flames. A thing of vengeance it was, a face of Bane, a malevolence born of fury and fear that the mortal mind can barely comprehend. It rode upon a great biting wind, a hatred for all things living, its hissing and moaning driving the flames about it like a chariot. A scream of death, blown backwards, cast out.

"Run..."

Laughter. Such terrible laughter.

And then the young man found himself standing alone atop the cliffs of the Imil Hordrim.

Clear sky above him. The ocean near. All as it had been. All except that of the specter of Orthantiac. The grey tower had vanished from the world. For now, at least.

A few words from the sorcerer Redim Ka hung in Tal's ears, a devious mind's last trick to leave them.

Tal listened carefully.