Torgrim raised his decrepit staff and used it to knock on the door, shaking loose pieces of crumbly wood and dry moss. Moved by a feeble thread of magic from inside the room, the door slowly swung open on creaking hinges. His hopes sank further. What help could he possibly hope for from someone for whom the simple act of opening a door was already a strain? Suppressing a sigh, he stepped over the threshold.

And there they were, looking at him warily: Elwyn of Woodsbury, Orsen Burnthands, and Gisbert the Good, the same old men wearing the same sour expressions and sitting in the same places as if they’d never moved an inch during the past two thousand years; as if they’d spent all this time doing nothing except wait for his return. Not only were they still alive – a near impossibility all by itself – they looked unchanged, as if the years had simply passed them by.

It was the first clear sign that something was badly amiss. The second was the black-iron strongbox sitting on the table with its lid open, reeking like the pits of hell with the stink of sorcery – and something worse. Torgrim didn’t need a third warning to tell him he was in serious trouble.

 

A fraction of a heartbeat later he was reaching for his power – only to find he’d been cut off from it. Completely. Even the trickle he’d been holding on to was gone.

Elwyn cackled, sounding more than half mad. Orsen glowered at Torgrim from under a single, thick brow. Briefly, a red light seemed to flicker behind his pupils. Gisbert pursed his lips, an old habit of his: he’d always done it before making an announcement he deemed momentous.

‘Greytower,’ he said in deep, booming tones that had nothing in common with the thin, reedy voice Torgrim remembered. ‘So good of you to come. We’d almost given up on you. But he said you’d come, so we waited. What else could we do? And lo and behold, here you are. Right where we want you.’

‘The least you fellows could do is introduce yourselves properly,’ Torgrim said. ‘Seems only fair, seeing as you can’t even be bothered to make a halfway decent effort at pretending to be someone you’re not.’

‘What?’ Gisbert said. ‘You don’t remember us? I’m hurt. I truly am. He doesn’t remember us,’ he informed the others, as if they hadn’t heard. ‘Very disappointing.’

Torgrim let it slide. Even if they told him their true names, something that was highly unlikely, the knowledge wouldn’t do him any good against creatures such as these. He knew he was dealing with something very, very bad. Unfortunately, it looked to be something he hadn’t seen since Simbalan and had hoped never to encounter again. Something only one person in all of Vereld was capable of creating: Aelfinn Malamut. So it was true. Somehow, he’d found a way to come back. Any lingering doubts Torgrim might have still had after the attack on his tower were now replaced by certainty.

‘What do you want, then?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t got all day.’

‘Oh, Torgrim,’ Elwyn said in the singsong tone of a child playing hide and seek. ‘You wouldn’t by any chance be stalling for time, would you? Asking all these questions you already know the answers to? Because if that’s what you’re doing, let me tell you: it’s useless. Your time, long as it’s been, has just run out. You’re overripe. You’re finished. Time to say goodbye.’

‘I wouldn’t if I were you,’ Torgrim said. ‘This is only going to end badly for the lot of you.’ He was procrastinating, all the while desperately rummaging through a part of his mind he called his ‘place of many doors’. He wasn’t a green beginner at this game, and he never relied on a single link to the magic. He went for one of his ‘doors’. Before he could reach it, it slammed shut in his face.

‘Ah-ah,’ Gisbert said, wagging a finger and grinning at Torgrim with a mouth full of pointy demon’s teeth. He was beginning to look markedly less human and more like something out of a screaming nightmare. As were the other two. Torgrim wasn’t impressed by their theatrics, though the force they wielded had him more than just worried. Without his own power he was dead meat, that much was clear. And even with it, his chances were slim. He tried several more doors in quick succession.

‘No,’ Gisbert said, banging them shut one after the other, his grin widening until his mouth was a maw that reached from ear to ear. ‘No, no, and no.’

Torgrim kept going from door to door, faster and faster. Joining forces, the three of them kept up easily. But they were following his lead now, becoming fixated on the doors and on reaching them first, making a game of it, each one trying to get there before the others did. In their haste, they were also getting in each other’s way. Which was why they didn’t notice the mouse hole in the skirting until it was too late and he was through.

 

As it was, he barely managed to call up his full power before they slammed him with a fist of dark magic that left him gasping. In Simbalan, there had been several of their kind roaming the battlefield, obliterating anything that got in their way. Back then, he’d fought one of them and survived by the skin of his teeth, battered and utterly depleted. Now he was dealing with three of them working together. He reckoned it would take a miracle to save him, power or no. Too bad he didn’t believe in that kind of stuff.

They struck again, and again. He managed to turn the onslaught away, but the force of the last strike threw him backwards against the wall, cracking a couple of ribs. It hurt like hell and made breathing a chore, but he had neither the time nor the power to spare for shoring himself up. Chunks of stone and plaster rained from the ceiling. A cloud of billowing dust obscured the air. Elwyn hooted with glee. Orsen’s eyes were huge, spinning orbs of fire. Preparing for the next strike, Gisbert made to purse his lips in concentration. It didn’t work. There were too many teeth in the way. He stuck with the fiendish grin.

And here it came, a hammer of roiling blackness that made what they’d thrown at Torgrim so far look like harmless foreplay. This time, he had no choice other than to send it straight back at them. Anything else, and he’d bring down the whole building. Being buried under three stories worth of rubble would prove a far greater obstacle to him than to his enemies. They were demons, but they were also shadows from the Void, and unlike himself they could flow through the smallest crack like poisonous ink, unstoppable and deadly.

 

They sent their dark magic back at him, now shot through with a few small, scintillating strands of his own. Again he turned it around, fearing where this would end. And then, with his own and his attackers’ actions mirroring each other to a fault as they hurled the black fist of doom back and forth, the very thing every mage dreaded most of all happened. The magic suddenly froze fast, binding them all together in a desperate clinch – an inescapable trap, unless one side or the other eventually managed to find a way out.

But that could take a very long time, if it ever came to pass at all. Aeons, if nothing extraneous disturbed the tableau.

Standing there immobilized, still as a statue, unable even to bat an eyelid, a terrifying thought occurred to Torgrim: gods only give that Jonathan didn’t decide to disregard his instructions and come looking for him! The lad wasn’t equipped to handle a situation like this. Not yet. If ever.

Struggling against the invisible bonds, Torgrim cast about for anything he could use to break the impasse. Just then, he saw the Orsen-demon blink. Torgrim’s blood ran cold. The Elwyn-demon’s left hand twitched. Gisbert’s grin seemed to widen a fraction. Damn, but the things were strong! They weren’t exactly breaking free, not yet. But they’d somehow found the leverage to push the deadly magic his way.

Slowly, inexorably, the balance began to shift.

 

 

                                                

Prologue – Digger’s Row

(AD 2001 / 1210, 4th Empire)

Lazily, a lone snowflake drifts out of the diffuse glare that on this day passes for a sky. Descending amidst dark, silent pines, it refuses to alight on branch or limb and instead continues on down to the forest floor. There, two boys are running through the strangely shadowless half-light, completely immersed in the game of the hunt. The tracking is easy enough with an inch of yesterday’s snow on the ground and regular though ever more widely spaced traces of blood marking the trail of the wounded deer Billy and Eric have so far failed to catch up with. They should – and do – know better than to shoot deer with a .22, but they are boys, a bit wild, and today they are up to no good.

  The deer isn’t seriously injured, and eventually there are no more drops of red dotting the snow, but the tracks are still clearly visible. Going slower now, the boys move through a ghostly zone of stunted, dead, and dying trees, and a quick, half-thought explanation for this desolation involving beaver dams and changing water tables flits along the edge of Eric’s mind but does nothing to dispel the creepy feeling that is suddenly stirring the small hairs on the back of his neck.

 Another hundred yards, and they find themselves on the edge of a large, almost perfectly circular clearing. Here the snow abruptly peters out as if it never touched the hard, dusty ground inside the round of dry brush and dead weeds. The deer seems to have run right up to where the snow ends, and then vanished into thin air. There is no trace of its passing beyond the snowline, which means the boys will have to circle around the whole clearing and see if they can pick up the tracks where they come out again.

  If they come out again. From all the evidence they can find at the deer’s point of entry into the circle, it might well have slyly back-tracked in its own prints, climbed a tree, and could right now be hiding somewhere up there among the pine boughs, laughing at the two-legged, bumbling fools down on the ground.

  For a moment the boys stand and rest, leaning forward with their hands on their knees, their breath pluming white in the chill air, and Eric notices the unnatural stillness that has descended on the woods seemingly out of nowhere. Suddenly Billy straightens up and points to the middle of the clearing, about fifty yards from where they stand.

  ‘Hey, check that out. What’s a couple of telephone poles doing out here in the middle of Bumfuck?’

  Eric squints warily through half-fogged glasses. He really doesn’t like this place. ‘I don’t know, man. Shouldn’t we be thinking about heading back? It’s getting late, and we’ve never been out this way before. This is, like, nobody ever comes here. It’s spooky, bro.’

  ‘Yeah, okay, okay. Chill, dude. Just lemme have a look.’

  ‘What about the deer?’

  ‘It’ll be okay. I think we just winged it. Come on. One quick look, and then we’re outta here.’

From up close, the two objects don’t look like telephone poles at all. Instead, they are something radically and disquietingly different. Roughly twelve feet tall, they stand about nine feet apart on a patch of earth that is blackened as if by a recent fire. A closer look shows that the soil is covered with a layer of some kind of lamp-black, lichenous or fungal growth. The same stuff has grown up both columns, covering them completely and making it impossible to tell whether they are made of stone or wood or metal – or something else entirely. Either the black stuff is thicker here, growing in a totally weird pattern, or the columns themselves are carved from top to bottom with strange, convoluted designs that send the eye slipping and sliding in impossible directions. Twisting perception and fooling the brain into seeing things that surely can’t be there. Tricking the mind into imagining a shimmering in the space between the columns, like hot air over sun-baked blacktop or the slightly fogged and distorted view in the uneven glass of an ancient mirror. Repulsing and at the same time drawing you in with sweetly poisoned promises never intended to be kept except maybe in a place you never, ever want to go.

  Just looking at it makes Eric feel nauseous. And scared. Shitting-himself scared. Drop-everything-and-run-for-his life scared.

  ‘Dude, this is mental! It’s creeping me out. Let’s get the fuck outta here. Hey Billy, c’mon man. You coming?’

  ‘Yeah, I’m coming, I’m coming. Just a sec.’ But Billy continues to move forward until he is nearly in line with the two columns. He raises a hand as if to touch the translucent curtain before him.

  ‘Don’t do that!’ Eric feels the situation is about to go seriously bad. ‘Billy, you stupid moron! That shit’s dangerous!’ Eric couldn’t say where this information has just come from, but he knows it’s true, no doubt about it.

  Billy pulls back his hand, hesitates, and then in one swift movement and following no clear decision of his own sticks the barrel of his .22 into the space between the columns. With a cocky grin he starts to turn towards Eric as if to say, ‘See? No big deal’.

  But then an altogether different expression overtakes him as the gun somehow begins to change and wriggle in his hand, while simultaneously the black stuff that seems to have grown up around his ankles and caught hold of his feet is pulling him inexorably forward.

  Before he can put up much of a struggle, it suddenly picks up speed and literally yanks him over the line and through the curtain, where momentarily a dark shape can be seen moving on the other side. Eric catches a glimpse of something huge and impossible that his mind immediately shuts out and refuses to acknowledge it has ever seen – except later, when the image will surface time and again in terrifyingly vivid dreams and a few years down the line leave him, already not the most stable of persons, hanging from an extension cord tied to a rafter in the attic of his parents’ house – and just like that, Billy is gone.

  ‘Billy!’ Eric yells, totally losing it. ‘Billy get back here, d’you hear me? Oh jeeze, oh fuck, Billy! Billeeeee!’

  There is no answer from beyond the curtain, no sign of life whatsoever. Eric is frozen in panic. The urge to help his buddy is undoubtedly there, but then suddenly the ground under his feet is moving like black sand shifting or inky ichor flowing, pulling him towards the shimmering maw, and fear beyond his every imagining backs him away until, sobbing with terror and shame, he drops his gun, turns, and runs.

 

 

                                             

1

Nightfall came early in the shadow of the high Tallamors, even three months past midwinter. This evening, full dark arrived with a fierce westerly chasing ragged clouds across the sky. Limned in pretty silver by a gibbous moon, they seemed to pause and linger in the light like fleeting promises of better things to come. But the wind drove them on relentlessly, out into the vaster darkness and back to their true colors: soot and ashes, harbingers of storm and ruin.

  On all sides, the mountains rose stark and black, jagged silhouettes ripped out of the heavens by a god-child’s willful hand. Now and then, stray moonbeams stole through the clouds, flitting over snow-laden flanks and icy peaks and backlighting sweeping plumes of powder flayed from the ridges and summits by the rising gale.

  Down in Haster’s Pass, only the occasional gust yet stirred the weather-beaten pines huddled along a flat expanse of snow, a field of dirty white crisscrossed by game trails and cut in two by a sharp, considered slash: Oldwall, straddling the pass at its highest point.

  A set of human footprints tracked a straight line up the snowfield’s southern half, ending at a pair of crumbling towers midway along the wall. Once, the towers had guarded a sturdy gate; now they flanked nothing but a few rotting timbers, half buried under an old drift begrimed with the thawed-out detritus of the winter’s storms and fast dwindling in an early warm spell.

 

Done setting a circle of Wards around the western tower, Graeme Banehunter stood for a moment looking back the way he’d come, his face a stark relief of planes and angles carved from moonlight and shadows. With a disgruntled caw! a raven flew up and flapped away into the night. Graeme saw shadows detach themselves from the trees, two, three, five of them. Rooters, the first he’d seen in a couple of weeks. Not the worst the Bane had to offer but bad enough, and damnably hard to kill. A few yards out they halted, heads turning this way and that as they sought the scent of prey on the chill mountain air. Seeing them standing there, one might have easily taken them for tallish stumps, remnants perhaps of pines beheaded by wind or lightning.

  But stumps didn’t move about, nor did they communicate an intense sense of craving, a mindless hunger palpable even from two hundred yards away. No doubt they’d close in on the tower during the night, drawn by the proximity of living human flesh. Hopefully the Wards would keep them out. If not, they’d at least provide an advance warning, give Graeme time to clear out. Which was why he’d set them a good thirty yards out, even if it meant putting up twice as many. Still, not for the first time he wished there was a mage along to handle the Warding.

 

Fifteen years ago, when he’d started out a green recruit, there had still been a handful of real mages fit enough to go out ranging with the hunters. Life had been easier then, and a lot less lonely. Now they were gone, victims of duty or time, and there was but a single one left: old Cuinnear, half blind and hampered by the shakes but still valiantly struggling to maintain Deepwall's Wards and keep safe all those who sheltered behind it. Real Wards, those, potent stuff, and nothing at all like Graeme’s, who had only a woodsman’s skills to work with, bolstered by a smidgen of Talent.

  Nonetheless, if you planned to spend any amount of time in Baintry’s wilderness it was something best learned early on, otherwise your chances of surviving were slim, and south of Deepwall nonexistent. Out here, at Oldwall and beyond, every Ward you set, even if perfectly made, was a gamble, a shot in the dark. You did your best and hoped it was enough; you prayed the things you’d come to hunt hadn’t learned some new trick while you weren’t looking; and, bedding down, you fervently wished this wouldn’t turn out to be the night you woke to find them standing over you, about to rip the flesh from your bones and root out your very soul from wherever the gods in their infinite wisdom had seen fit to house it within your mortal form.

  Would that we had a hundred Cuinnears, and younger ones at that, Graeme thought as he sought sleep in the tower’s bare, third-floor chamber after a frugal meal of hard bread and dried meat.

  What would happen once Cuinnear was gone didn’t bear thinking on. No one ever said it aloud, and no one needed to, but everyone had known from the start that, in the long haul, the Vales were doomed. Now they had run out of mages, and they’d run out of hunters willing to go ranging beyond Oldwall without true magic to keep them safe. None left save crazy Graeme. Crazy Graeme Deathhunter, they called him, though never to his face. Crazy Graeme, who went out time and again to hunt his doom, and all he ever found lying in wait for him was the gods’ own luck. Crazy Graeme who knew no fear.

  How little they understand. Fool I may be, but never fearless. Forget to fear the thing you hunt, and it will kill you for a certainty. No, it’s just that I’ve another, greater fear to balance it: the thought of spending the rest of my years standing on Deepwall and waiting for the Bane to come to me. That scares me more than anything I’ve ever come across in the wilds south of Oldwall. I need to take the fight to the enemy. It’s what I’ve been taught to do. It’s what I am.

  Raising himself on an elbow, he tossed another piece of wood onto the small fire he’d lit for the sake of safety rather than warmth – if nothing else, the Rooters burned quite nicely. You’re turning into a right philosopher, he told himself wryly. Best put a lid on it and get some sleep, else you’ll go stumbling into something nasty on the morrow.

 

It was sometime after midnight when he awoke.

Passing from light sleep to full alertness in a heartbeat was one of the things that helped keep a man alive out here, which was why he’d refined the ability to an art. Motionless, his breathing steady, he opened his eyes and checked the room.

  The fire had burned down, but the softly glowing embers shed all the light he needed. Nothing there. No Rooters. No rootlets worming their way in through the cracks between the stones. But something had woken him, and Oldwall was not a place where you discounted any disturbance, however slight. For long moments, he lay still, watching, listening, sensing. Then he felt it again: something brushing up against one of his Wards, ever so lightly.

  It could have been an animal. It could have been the snow underneath the Wards, minimally shifting with the night’s frost. Or the wind blowing something against them: a leaf, snow crystals, grit. Lots of possibilities. None of them likely. Nine times out of ten, disturbed Wards meant that the Bane was testing the boundaries of his safe zone. The problem was, he couldn’t say for sure which of the thirty-odd Wards he’d set was being probed – until whatever was out there ran out of patience and gave the Ward a hard poke. Now he knew exactly where it was: up on the western half of the wall.

  In a trice, he was up, scooping a double handful of twigs onto the embers. He blew on them until they burst into flame. Added a few larger pieces. Strung his bow and clipped the quiver to his belt. Felt another poke probing the Ward, stronger this time, almost hard enough to burst it wide open. Not good. If those were Rooters out there, they were damn strong ones. Gods give it wasn’t something worse.

  Holding the bow in his left hand, he held a torch from his dwindling supply into the flames until it caught fire. The light would alert whatever was out there to the fact that he’d noticed, and it also interfered with his night vision, but there was no way around it. Unless you got miraculously lucky with every single shot, shooting at Rooters in the dark with ordinary arrows was like trying to fell a tree with a pen knife. Taking a deep, calming breath, he stepped out onto the walkway and immediately stuck the torch into a sconce he’d affixed to the outer tower wall already years ago, high and to the right so his own shadow wouldn’t get in the way.

 

Thirty yards out, three Rooters were crowding the walkway.

Not ten paces behind them there was a breach in the wall, a remnant of the Watch’s last stand at Oldwall that had left a rubble-filled gap – and a way for the Rooters to reach the top of the wall. For the moment, they seemed to have given up attacking the Ward head-on. Instead, Graeme heard the scrape and grind of stressed stone as unseen roots wormed their way into joints and cracks. Give them enough time, they’d bring down a whole section of the wall and dislodge his Ward.

  He lit a fire arrow, took careful aim, and loosed, just as two yard’s worth of crenels toppled over and vanished into the night, landing in the snow at the foot of the wall with a series of dull thuds.

  His shot hit the mark, but the fire didn’t take. Probably a moist patch on the thing’s skin, left over from yesterday’s snowfall. He fired again. This time, the target burst into flame. For several moments it stood swaying, shrieking in a register so high it was almost beyond Graeme’s hearing, the dumb agony in its almost-but-not-quite-human eyes a sickening sight that still managed to get to him, even after all these years.

  Then it fell over forwards, straight into the Ward, shattering it.

  With the way clear, the other two pulled up roots and came for Graeme, their branch-like arms weaving and swaying with frenzied hunger. Given the light from the burning Rooter, Graeme chose an arrow with a bodkin head and went for a head shot. Aiming at the Rooter in the lead, he realized a fraction too late that, except for the eyes, this one’s face was all thick, tough bark. He tried to adjust but missed, hitting it just below the eye, less than half an inch of the tip penetrating the ligneous skin. He got off one last shot, missed again. Slow as they were, the Rooters were closing fast, leaving him barely enough time to discard the bow and draw his sword.

  Fighting them at close quarters was a dangerous business. Deadly dangerous. They didn’t even need to bring him down and bury their roots in him. One scratch was all it took. One scratch, and it was all over.

  The first one was a bitch. Graeme barely managed to avoid its darting, whipping branches while he looked for a soft spot somewhere in the bark-like skin. Nothing doing. Transferring the sword to his left hand, he reached behind him, found the torch, and stuck it straight into the thing’s rudimentary face. With a high-pitched screech, it fell back against its companion, setting it alight as well. Gods’ own luck.

  Breathing heavily, trembling with the aftershock of battle, Graeme watched them burn, until a gust of wind blowing the mixed stench of smoldering bark and roasting flesh in his face roused him, reminding him that it wasn’t over yet. There were more Rooters out there, and gods knew what else. He set a new Ward in place of the old one before retreating into the tower. There would be no more sleep tonight, but standing watch outside would accomplish nothing the Wards couldn’t do, and he needed to stay warm.

 

Early the next morning, Graeme set out for Deepwall.

He was out of supplies and out of human company, though he doubted he’d find any of the latter worth keeping, apart from old Cuinnear maybe. Undoing last night’s Wards, he noted that a couple more Rooters, much less than he’d expected, had tried to break the circle of Wards down on the ground, and been foiled by it. They’d left before first light. What remained was a strip of bared earth around the warded space, churned and perforated by dozens of holes where they’d tried to reach him through the ground.

  Rooting through thirty yards of rock-hard, frozen soil was hard work, and worming under the Wards was a damn sight harder still. Daylight had overtaken them before they’d gotten anywhere. A good thing too. The tower’s walls wouldn’t have held them off for very long. They could infiltrate and rend and tear most anything apart, stone included – as the half dozen gaps in Oldwall proved beyond a doubt. What they could do to human flesh…

  Graeme refused to think about it. He’d seen it happen, and would forever wish he hadn’t.