The Darkness Drops

It was snowing, as it had been since a week before, when the wind had swung around, bringing the first cold bite of the Dark One’s winter to freeze the rain, and chill the bone. And in the depths of the Tamarus night, something stirred, something old, ancient. Something dark. Something wrong.

The air felt it, and fled, the land felt it and recoiled in horror. The creatures of the island felt it too and gave voice to their despair. Then, finally, as Apple bucked and reared, throwing, back his head in panic, Wenceslas felt it too. His senses, elven-keen, screamed at him, the flows of the elements roared and surged in his head, and he was afraid. And at once he knew how foolish he had been.

It had seemed such a fine idea. The Grand Master was concerned about the well being of the outlying communities on Tamarus, and when he asked for volunteer to travel, Wenceslas had been quick to indicate his willingness. He was, he knew, hurting still, the death of Hargrim lying heavy on his heart and in his mind. A ride, deep into the island, away from the bustle, the words, the noise, would, he thought, he hoped, help.

And help it had. He knew, as anyone growing up amongst humans mustknow, how short their lives were, how bitter the pill of death was forthose left behind, but he hadn’t understood why he hurt so. It was onlyas he rode, with the air of Tamarus deep in his lungs, the rhythm ofthe island loud and clear around him, and with Apple, solid,companionable, patient and understanding, that the elf found the answerhe sought. Hargrim was his friend, and he hadn’t lost one of thosebefore. And by what should have been the final day of his journey, hismind had settled. He still missed Hargrim, still cursed himself for notbeing able to drag forth the last shreds of strength that could havemade a difference, but his life was long, and there were other friendswho needed him still. He wouldn’t let them down. It was then, his mindlulled and senses dimmed by thoughts of life, and friends, and peace,that he made his mistake.

Home was so close, he could have made it with an hour’s easyride. But, for the first time since the blood soaked terror of pain anddarkness that had been the fight on Sammarix, the day was bright, theair was fresh and clear, and Apple was enjoying the exercise. It wouldbe pleasant, he had thought, to have one more night to enjoy it. Sohe’d reined in early, rubbed Apple down, rigged a shelter for the horseand himself from his cloak, and some fallen branches, and put thekettle on to boil. By the time he had completed an early supper, nighthad fallen, and he had stripped off shirt and tunic, hood, hat andmittens for a freezing wash before sleep. Then It came.

Wenceslas had half turned, confused, as the horse began to rear. Afraction of a second later, it hit him, the feeling, the sensation, thecertainty, hard enough to pitch him forward, retching his recent supperinto the snow.

As quickly as it had come, it was gone, and the night wasstill. Wenceslas stumbled to his feet and ran to where Apple stoodquivering, head down, legs apart, stroking the horse’s head, calminghim, as he struggled to calm himself. He turned, steadying himself,scanning the tree-line as he did so, his eyes straining against thedarkness, ears pricked for any sound. Nothing. Forcing his breathing toslow, the elf tried to relax, tried to feel Tamarus, theisland, its elements, its pattern. He was but half-trained in theelemental arts, and could only clumsily follow threads of magic, buteven Wenceslas could tell that something was wrong. No, that wasn’tright. Everything was wrong, panicked, askew, as if somealmighty storm had raged through a quiet stable, leaving devastationand chaos in its wake. But whatever It had been was gone, leaving justthe calm that came after the storm…

Maybe his clumsy probings gave him some warning, or maybeWenceslas just felt Apple tense behind him, but something, somehow, inan instant, spoke a warning. This wasn’t the calm after the storm, thiswas the silence of a trap. It wasn’t gone, it was waiting. And then it came again.

Apple saved him,rearing and bucking, bringing Wenceslas to his senses despite thehorror that sought to overwhelm him. Instinct carried him onto theTartar stallion’s back, crouched low over his neck, wordlessly urginghim on. The horse responded, leaping forward like a flame through drystraw, not away from the madness and panic, but throughit. Clutching hard on Apple’s mane, it felt to Wenceslas as though theyhad burst through a curtain flung across the world, a curtain that hadbeen created on the loom of a crazed weaver who had used darkness andpanic and sorrow and despair for their threads. All he could do wassob, his eyes shut tight as Apple plunged on into the night.

It was snowing, and Hugo Valerian was cold, and bored. Being aSquire of the Order Celestial was, he knew, and he believed, an honour,and that honour required one to do one’s duty. When one’s duty was asentry patrol on the edge of town, on a quiet night, however, it wascold and boring. He wouldn’t have minded if he was going to see someaction, see anything, but all there as out there was a track, headingup into the hills.

A track, and a lot of snow.

A track, and a lot of snow and a dark night.

A track, a lot of snow, a dark night, and a horse plunging down the track.

A track, a lot of snow, a dark night, a horse plunging down the track, and someone on its back…

Sir Nethaniel was pacing anxiously in the hall of theChapterhouse, as he had been for the last hour, since a tired eyedmessenger had summoned him from his bed. He turned, as Elrood made hisway down the stairs.

“How is he?”

The Grandaster sighed. “Sleeping, for now. He was half chilled to death, and worrying himself silly about the horse…”

Nethaniel caught himself smiling fondly, despite himself. “So what happened?”

Elrood shrugged wearily. “I don’t know, for certain. Something’sscared him enough to ride that horse into the ground, but he didn’tseem to know what it was himself.”

“Bandits maybe? Beast cultists? Something through theMirror?” Polaris, who had been perching quietly on a table, counted offthe possibilities. “Our Companion does scare easily sometimes.”

Elrood spread his hands. “It could be anything, it could be nothing, ‘though I doubt that.”

“So what do we do?”

Nethaniel answered, before Elrood had to. “We can take a party upthe path, see if there’s anything to see. Realistically ‘though, wewait…”