“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 he ever 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?”