Sunlight glinted off silver disks sewn onto the tough green leather cuirass worn by Garwood as he turned slightly to stare at his prisoner with piggish, bloodshot eyes. His mouth stretched in a gloating grin that revealed rotted teeth like miniature gravestones protruding from pale gums.
"Well, Slink. What say you? A perfect day for a beheading? And a perfect head to roll for the crowd's entertainment I would venture." His hissing laughter came on breath that was redolent of carrion, garlic and stale wine.
Before Slink could mouth a retort the crowd gave a cheer that distracted the Militia chief who looked around to the platform upon which the caged thief would end his life. Slink, too, looked at the grim place where only two items of furniture stood; a large block with two grooves cut opposite each other and a wicker basket strategically placed before one of the grooves. The reason for the cheer became apparent as a large man stepped into view dressed in leather armour and dark hose. A traditional executioner's hood covered is head and shoulders while in his meaty hands he held an enormous axe its wide, curved blade glinting in the morning light. Slowly the headsman raised his axe until it hovered vertically over his head, the blade scintillating as sunbeams reflected off its surface. He held it there pausing for several seconds. Then, with a ripple of his mighty muscles, he brought the blade down in a vicious arc that caused displaced air to moan with its passage. Again muscle flexed and the wicked instrument stopped dead, the leading edge of the blade almost kissing the redwood block. A loud gasp arose from the crowd in admiration of the giant man's control of the weapon.
"Enough of this foolery." Garwood called, raising his green leather gauntlet embossed, upon its back, with the intricate design depicting his office. "Proceed with the sentence."
Hands reached into the cage, grasping the prisoner roughly on the biceps, dragging him over the splintery planks until he stood blinking in the sunlight between two burly guards. Before he could gather breath or stretch cramped muscles they half marched, half dragged him up the scaffold not pausing until he stood before the large block facing the crowd. Garwood stomped ponderously up the steps, his face reddening with the effort, his breath coming in audible gasps at this unexpected exercise. Slink felt a rill of sweat course down his forehead, into his left eye and down his cheek. He longed to brush away the stinging water but could not due to his hands being firmly bound behind his back.
Instead he concentrated on the overweight militia chief who had stopped before him and was now unrolling a parchment, frowning at the words written thereon.
"What's the matter, Captain. Can't read?" Slink croaked forcing a lopsided grin. "Methinks you hold the warrant upside down."
Some of the nearer spectators laughed. Not because the joke was that funny, but because a condemned man could joke at the expense of his captor moments before the axe fell.
"I'll hold you upside down, maggot, to ensure your carcass is completely drained of blood after your top is popped off." Garwood glowered at his captive for a few seconds, then bent his head to the paper. Loudly hawking his throat to gain attention, he began to read:
"Hear ye all. On this noonday there stands before you a thief, justly convicted. The accused, Slink by name, stands convicted by a panel of his peers of pilfering the State treasury. It is my solemn and sworn duty to ensure that the penalty for robbing the public purse be carried out. Such penalty is death by beheading."
"Robbing the public purse?" Came a cry from the crowd. "Then why are you not beheading the tax man?"
A roar of laughter made Garwood stop reading the decree. His face reddened at the affront of having his thunder stolen by an inane remark, but he kept his eyes firmly fixed on the parchment until the hubbub had died.
"I hereby charge Kroth, the headsman, with the duty of carrying out this sentence upon Slink the thief immediately." Loudly stressing the last word, Garwood lowered the parchment, looked at the headsman and pointed at Slink dramatically. Rough hands pushed him to his knees then forced his head upon the block. The crowd began to roar, their cries demanding that blood be spilt. Slink felt the cold wood press into his throat as his knees thudded onto the raw planking of the platform. Now his eyes stared into the empty wicker basket. Empty, but not for long. Shadows moved and he could see the silhouette of the axe rising high, hovering above the executioner's head. He closed his eyes and waited to hear the whistle of the blade as it arched down to claim his life.
"Hold! In the King's name, hold." The cry was so loud it silenced the voice of the crowd. Slink opened his eyes. He was glad to see the basket still empty, and glad he was still looking into it from above. Shadows showed him the headsman had lowered his axe. A glint of polished steel, seen in the corner of his eye, indicated that the deadly blade was resting on the planks not far from his head. He had not even heard it fall. Cranking his head to the side he could make out a tall warrior mounted on a stallion pushing through the throng towards the scaffold.
"What is the meaning of this?" Garwood called to the newcomer. "This is a legal execution ordered by a jurare populus and comes not under the King's jurisdiction."
It was the mention of the King that jogged Slink's memory, and now he appreciated the brightly coloured livery worn by the mounted warrior. Golden circlets on the shoulders indicated his high ranking in the King's Guard. Dangling at his side was a broadsword with a well-worn haft indicating that, as a warrior, the man was no show pony. Darkly bearded and weather beaten, the face indicated he was a man who had campaigned far into foreign lands and survived. Now he frowned at Garwood, his flint-like blue eyes glittering dangerously.
"The King's jurisdiction is for the King to decide. Not you, cretin. My sword will excise your treasonous words should you not care to revoke them."
Garwood reddened even more and began making choking sounds as he struggled to withhold his rage. The lean frame of the man and the well-tanned arms rippling with muscle cautioned him to be wary. Being basically a coward also helped him make up his mind.
"My apologies, Lord." He murmured. "I did misquote as, verily, I meant that the King's seal was not called for in this case."
Garwood glanced nervously at the thief and back to the warrior. "May the seven Gods of Light shower his majesty with never ending gifts."
"That's better, ruffian. Now unfetter the prisoner and find him a horse for he rides with me to the palace, by order of the King."
"But, good Lord, he is a thief. He has stolen from the treasury and that calls for him to be..."
"Silence!" The voice was so loud that even the burly headsman took two paces back, startled by its power.
"Did I not make it clear that I have the king's mandate? Now get the man a horse, else I will see your head fitted to that block. You'd like that, wouldn't you Kroth?" The Officer added the last bit looking at the headsman. The big executioner nodded his head eagerly, making the King's ambassador throw back his head and roar with laughter.
"It appears your help holds you not in high esteem, Captain Garwood. Come; free the prisoner. I weary of this meet."
"Aaah, my dear thief. I see you flourish yet. So happy I could be of service to you in retaining your head." He chuckled at his own wit, twisting his body in the great seat. "I suppose it has crossed your mind that there might be a purpose in my intervening with the festivities in the City Square?"
Slink nodded rapidly, not trusting his tongue to reply just yet. He kept his eyes on the fat monarch who became momentarily distracted as he released another rumbling explosion from his bowels. "Aaaah" He sighed, focusing on Slink again. "Forgive me. I love pears you see, but they seem to have their own voice." Again the great belly shook as he laughed at his own joke. Suddenly his face changed to seriousness. He leaned forward, eyes glaring at Slink.
"A small favour of you, thief, in return for your life. Know you of Ultrich?"
"Ultrich? You refer to the Drachen lord, my king?"
"The very same. You are familiar with him?"
Slink frowned and shook his head slowly. "Not familiar, my liege. Those who attempt to be familiar with him wind up extremely dead, but I have some knowledge. He is a powerful Drachen wizard who lives in Burning Mountain several days ride north of the city near the Cliffs of Weeping. Not an entity to be trifled with, my liege."
"Truth, thief. He is indeed all that you describe, and more I wager. My task for you involves the Drachen."
The king shuffled his ample frame again. It appeared that even king's thrones could deaden buttocks, be they ever so royal. "The Drachen has in his possession the legendary Rings of Power which I covert. To steal them is a task possible only to a master thief, such as yourself, so when I heard of your...er...indiscretion involving public funds, and of your capture by Garwood, I thought there might be room for bargaining between yourself and me."
"Hold, my lord. The Drachen has mighty powers. Even should I escape with the rings, he would find me in moments and remove my presence from this plane with one of his foul spells."
"As I said, it would take an exceptional thief."
Damatar began inspecting the ceiling while scratching at his crotch with one meaty hand. His eyes roved slowly from left to right as if tracking some invisible being and his voice was vague. "Of course, you may decline this mission. I'm only interested in enthusiastic volunteers and would not dream of press-ganging anyone." He sighed and dropped his head to look straight into Slink's eyes, smiling lopsidedly. "Are you declining my mission, Slink? Say so quickly my thief. I would not wish to keep Kroth waiting in this heat."
Slink felt a chill along his spine as he saw the axe descend; a silvery arc in his mind's eye.
"Majesty. I have not said I wouldn't take your commission. I was merely pondering on the strategy required to complete such a feat. What would you offer for the rings?"
"Your life, for first. I would grant full pardon for all past misdeeds within my domain and I would allow you as much gold and jewels from the royal vault as you can carry in your purse and pockets. What say you?"
"Your majesty is generous indeed, for I have a large purse and plenty of pockets. All that wealth and my head also? These are good reasons to accept this quest. Now, how do I recognise the rings?"
"They are fashioned each of a different gemstone. One is of amber, another of aquamarine, yet another is of garnet and the last is of turquoise."
"Pretty stones indeed, but their combined value as gems is but a pittance to one as wealthy as yourself. What is it that makes these trinkets of such value to your majesty?"
"That, my dear Slink, is my affair. Suffice to say that the value of the rings to yourself is worth your life and the reward as offered you. Now, do we have a deal?"
"Would your majesty grant one teeny wish prior to my commencement of this venture?"
"Name your wish, Slink, then I shall gauge whether it be granted."
` I feel naked without my cowl and cloak, and I would dearly like to have wurmfang for company."
"Wurmfang? Who is wurmfang?"
"Not "who", majesty, "what". Wurmfang is my dagger which Garwood has taken possession of, since he assumed I would have no further need of it."
"So be it. Your garment and your weapon will be returned to you."
"Then, your majesty, we have a deal."
"You have chosen wisely. My servants will show you to quarters where you can bathe and rest until the morrow. Provisions and a steed will be made ready by morning." The king lifted a podgy hand, clicking his thumb and finger. Two guards immediately flanked Slink.
"Oh, by the way. These two fellows will ensure that you don't wander off into the yonder before morning call, and that no objects of worth become stuck to your thieving fingers. Enjoy your stay, Slink. We shall speak again upon your return."
Behind him, misted by distance, the city walls shrank into the landscape. Slink was on his own without minders, without enforcers, without anyone who could make him do anything he did not wish to do. Even the dust cloud caused by the departing guards could no longer be distinguished. So why was he still on track for Burning Mountain? It would be a cinch to turn the quarter horse's head towards Shellaa, that beautiful city at the edge of the ocean, and lose one's self, never to return to King Damatar. Most importantly, never to be involved with Ultrich.
Slink sighed deeply, tasting the perfumed air warmed by the morning sun. Curiosity. That was it. After hearing about those fabulous rings he could never rest until he had seen them, touched them, possessed them. "Rings of power" the king had called them. Slink was convinced that the monarch did not wish to possess them merely for their intrinsic value nor for their small worth as gems. He squinted up at the hot, blue sky studying two large condors circling under the bright bronze orb of the sun. An omen? Suddenly a shiver racked his frame as if an ethereal chill had permeated his very bones.
Heat and flies were the two things Slink truly hated and now he had them both in abundance. Futile sweeps of his hand only kept the stinging, biting desert flies buzzing around, darting in to suck at his body's moisture between each flapping of his hands. All the exercise made him even hotter and more bothered, but he kept relentlessly striving for the top of the path. It amazed Slink, when it came, to find that the road up the mountain ended at a stout oak door at least fifteen feet high and eight feet wide. It was a huge portal totally out of proportion to a human being. Above him the mountain rumbled and he could smell brimstone as the old volcano belched fumes from its smouldering belly. Ignoring the stench Slink examined the door and saw a large brass lock under a pull-ring. The lock was big enough that he could look within and count its tumblers. He smiled. A novice could open this, he thought as he withdrew lock-picking tools from his pouch. Working deftly, Slink clicked over the tumblers until all had disengaged and within a two minute span of time he had the door unlocked. Carefully he turned the large iron ring and pushed. The door opened slowly, but surprisingly without a sound and Slink slipped through the opening and into the cool of the mountain's interior.
Darkness clutched him, wrapping him in its shroud. His eyes, used to the searing sun outside, refused to interpret the images around him, instead transmitting a kaleidoscope of coloured flashes before settling to blackness. Experimenting, he moved his eyes around but this only produced 'cat's eyes' in his otherwise darkened vision. Worse of all he could hear a dragging shuffle coming towards him; footsteps on stone sounding wet, and he could smell the stench of rotting meat. Reaching for wurmfang he fell into a crouch as his ears detected a low moaning sound like that of tortured souls.
"Who's there?" He called loudly as his blade came free of its scabbard. As the dagger cleared leather, so did its magic begin to work repelling the darkness with sorcerous light. Slink's eyes darted around, noting the rocky tunnel he had entered, carved out of living rock. Movement deeper in the tunnel attracted his eyes. It was a man; no, it was a warrior. Worse still, it was a warrior's animated corpse! Now he saw the source of both the moaning and the smell as the lich approached. It held a rusty sword at an oblique angle to its body as it dragged its rotted feet across the rough stone. Slink could see the smear of putrefied blood and fluid it left as it tore flesh off its feet. From under a dented helm the partially mummified, partially corrupted face displayed teeth and skull through blackened meat, jaws parting hideously as it groaned again.
Normal weapons can slow a lich, even hack it into harmless pieces after a while, but it takes enchanted weapons to lay it to rest. Such was wurmfang, forged by ancient necromancers and coming to its present master by thievery and sleight of hand. Slink opened his arms into a loose 'V' with the magic blade in his right hand. Still crouched, he sidled left and right as the creature slowly approached. The lich raised its weapon and swung a blow so clumsily that the thief evaded it with ease. Slink's right fist snaked forward, a straight thrust with wurmfang, its point seeking the lich's breast. The blade sank into dead flesh and the lich howled making Slink retch as carrion breath washed over him. Still the thing did not die. It raised its blade once more, sweeping it backhanded and Slink barely ducked out of its path. Again wurmfang darted in, aimed at the dead warrior's throat. As the enchanted blade struck home a filthy, malodorous gout of black fluid gushed from the throat wound and the creature gurgled a scream. Dead things do not feel pain unless the damage is inflicted by magic and wurmfang was indeed enchanted.
Again it swung a vicious cut with the rusty blade, but the swing was wild and Slink dove under it delivering a stupendous blow that hacked deeply into the lich. It stopped, dropped its sword, and looked agape at the wound fingering it with rotted talons. Silently it crumpled, falling to the stony floor, finally and irrevocably dead.
Breathing somewhat heavily from the exercise Slink approached the corpse. He kicked it once, hard in the face, before stepping over it and continuing along the gloomy corridor.
Ultrich stirred uncomfortably, his eyes flicking open briefly at the demise of his lich. Death of the zombie had caused the surge of magical energy to snap back like an over stretched rubber band, registering enough psychic pain to bring the drachen lord out of his trance. He frowned at the disturbance. To him it was as if a mosquito had come buzzing about his ears causing him annoyance. When a mosquito buzzes near your ear, you swat it. The Drachen lord smiled at the simile as he began muttering an ancient incantation. It was time to swat the mosquito.
As damp as the tunnel was, with puddles of slimy water and more dripping from the walls and ceiling, the air was uncomfortably warm. Slink sniffed distastefully at the musty odour, sometimes getting a whiff of acrid fungus spores languishing in the heavy atmosphere. Creepy things scuttled from the enchanted light that spread about three paces before the thief while in the penumbra of that light he caught glimpses of fiery red eyes. Hungry eyes that peered at him but vanished as the light advanced. Clumps of putrid moss and fungus gave the scurrying things good hiding places and only occasionally did Slink catch sight of bloated pale bodies or shiny black carapaces bristling with legs, stings and claws. Firmly pushing the thought of these horrors to the back of his mind, the thief moved stealthily towards the inner chamber, eyes and fingers searching for the traps he expected along the way.
Magical energies gathered before the Drachen wizard. A swirl of unhealthy light appeared coloured in alien hues, oscillating and growing as the incantation reached a crescendo. The mage clapped his scrawny clawed hands together and the maelstrom of colour settled into a column of light that quickly darkened into a huge hunched form with glowing eyes. The illumination faded revealing the being from beyond. A demon stood smiling cruelly before the cross-legged sorcerer.
"You called for Yaathnaronz? I have come. What will you of me?"
The demon's voice was sibilant, low; almost a whisper but it carried within it a dark promise of horror and the colour of pure evil.
"Great and terrible Yaathnaronz aid me, for an enemy comes."
The demon snorted causing a yellowish cloud of brimstone to flee across the chamber.
"A mere mortal, totally unworthy of my talents. I should rip your soul out through your nostrils, summonsing me for this!"
"Threaten me not, Ancient One, for I have wards in place. Take the one who comes to steal from me back to your plane and trifle with his soul at your pleasure. I am sure that sporting with him will mollify your wrath."
Yaathnaronz chuckled, his maw opening to reveal shifting fangs that appeared and disappeared in an endless parade marching from the front of his palate, down his throat.
"Aaah, old friend. You know me too well. Was it not for your excellent wards I would, today, have two souls to torment. Perhaps one day eh? But for now, I will collect the prize you offer."
"Then begone, Demon." Ultrich gestured briefly and the demon swirled back into a spinning cloud of colour that shrank and disappeared.
Slink scratched at the back of his head as he studied the intersection. Three choices lay before him; to the left, to the right and ahead. Sticky web hung from the ceiling of the tunnel to the right. Judging by the thickness of the strands, the denizen that had spun it would find his sparse frame no more than a light snack. Slink shuddered and discounted this route. He hated spiders. That left a choice between directly ahead and to the left.
"Aid me, wurmfang." He whispered. "Left or fore?" He pointed the weapon in each of the two directions as he mouthed the question, gazing intently at the blade as he did so. As the dagger swung between the two routes the magical light waxed and waned, growing stronger to the left and weaker when pointed ahead. Slink entered the left tunnel and continued his journey.
He had gone a mere fifty paces when the air immediately before him began to swirl forming an eddy of coloured light that solidified into the hideous form of a demon. Yaathnaronz grinned his saw- toothed grin and Slink shuddered at the conveyer belt movement of those fangs as they churned back into the creature's throat.
"Aaah, mortal. How sweet is the smell of your soul! The time has come for you and I to play." As the demon spoke it advanced, reaching out with one huge, deformed hand that ended in a tangle of vicious claws. Instinctively Slink crouched and brought wurmfang forward in a fighter's stance. The demon looked at Slink's blade and stopped reaching, retracting the questing talons.
"What? Is that you, Taratheleon?" The monster sounded somewhat confused. Its eyes remained fixed on the blade.
Slink stayed in the fighting crouch, moving the blade slightly to the left and right, watching as the creature's eyes followed its path.
"Taratheleon? Of whom do you speak?" He asked it.
Now the beast lifted hellish eyes to gaze upon the thief. "You carry Taratheleon's blade, Wurmfang. It was a gift to him, from me, more than three centuries ago. How came you by it?"
Slink thought fast. He knew he could not hope to vanquish this creature as its powers were too great. A long shot; did demons honour friendship? He was about to find out.
"I am a descendant of Taratheleon. The blade was left to me through my paternal line." Slink lied, mentally crossing fingers.
"The great necromancer had offspring?" The demon stood fingering its chin with one clawed hand, resting the elbow on its other arm. "Know you of his deeds, small one?"
"Nay, great Demon. Many generations have passed between his time and my own."
The demon nodded slowly and levitated into a sitting position, hovering several feet off the floor.
"He did me a service once. My troth to him encompasses his descendants to the end of time. Fear me not, little one, for I seek not to harm the kin of Taratheleon. I am called Yaathnaronz. What is your name?"
Slink relaxed his stance letting wurmfang dangle from his hand, by his side. He hoped the beast had no ability to read minds else he would be demon food. He had no kinship with Taratheleon and had purloined the blade from a sorcerer, whose name he did not know, over a decade ago.
"It is Slink, your lordship."
"Aaah, Slink. It seems I have been wrest from my plane to no advantage by Ultrich. Would that I could take him back to my domain. What seek you from him?"
"Four rings fashioned from gemstones. King Damatar called them Rings of Power."
"Ah, the Rings of Power. Worthy trophies indeed, for they can control the very elements." Yaathnaronz paused and looked back into the darkness, in the direction of the dark wizard's chamber and a rumbling sound emitted from deep within his chest.
"Hmmm. Also the rings ward him. Without them his soul and his scrawny carcass would be mine."
"Then aid me, mighty Yaathnaronz. For me, the rings and for you, a soul."
The demon nodded slowly and brought his clawed hands up in front of his face. Sibilant hissings and guttural nuances flowed from his misshapen mouth as the hands weaved a complicated pattern in the air. Small rills of light appeared, snaking through the gloom in a myriad of colour, converging into a swirling globe that hovered between the monster's cupped hands. As he opened his hands, so the globe grew to about twice the size of a man's head. Within its confines, Slink saw himself standing before an enraged Yaathnaronz. The small caricature of himself warded the advancing monster with wurmfang, but to no avail. A cluster of talons darted forward at the end of an arm powered by supernatural strength. They closed about his other self's throat and the tiny figure expired in a cloud of blood as the head dislodged.
In the real world, the demon grinned at him.
"And so, now you are dead; or so Ultrich would believe." As he spoke the orb faded, carrying with it the grizzly scene of Slink's demise.
A grin spread slowly on Ultrich's face as the death scene of the thief played in his mind. Now, with the mosquito squashed, it was time to soar the ethereal plane again. His eyes drew closed as his mind drifted to the place from where the presence of the intruder had drawn it.
As the thief bent to study the lock, the demon came close to his ear. Slink felt a warm blast, redolent of brimstone, as the creature rumbled in a low whisper.
"I cannot enter beyond this point, friend Slink, for should I venture within, Ultrich's wards would entrance me to do his bidding. I would be unable to prevent myself from harming you should he command thus."
Slink nodded, his small eyes fixed on the lock. He had dug his picklocks from within his cloak and prodded at the lock, feeling gingerly for tumblers and tripping them with practised ease. Soon a soft metallic "click" sounded from the lock and Slink smiled.
"Stand guard here my demon friend. I shall seek my trinkets within."
Yaathnaronz inclined his fearsome head and grinned, displaying serrated teeth that whirled back into his throat at a speed that sent droplets of saliva in all directions. Even as Slink watched, Yaathnaronz's dentures shimmered and changed until they became hooked fangs resembling those of a bear.
Slink shuddered slightly, but smiled at his ally in an effort to avoid affront. Then he turned towards the door, wrenching at the ornate handle, thrusting open the portal wide enough to squeeze through.
The chamber was enormous. High above Slink a domed ceiling was just discernible in the gloom, its features blurred by the murky shadows. Tapestries hung on the walls; great rugs of sombre colours woven with mystic scenes that were somehow disturbing to look at, yet meaningless to the uninitiated. Glowing spheres provided wan illumination, splashing suffused puddles of light that struggled to hold back the encroaching darkness. Pedestals stood randomly around the walls, each supporting a figurine or idol many of which Slink recognised as lesser demons or demigods. The centre of the great chamber was void of obstacles and floor coverings. The floor appeared constructed of swirling black and grey marble that resembled an angry storm cloud in the centre of which, seated in a lotus position, sat a wizened old man.
Slink backed into a convenient shadow where he stood, motionless, studying the old man. Although the sage's eyes were wide open they appeared glazed, without focus, staring far off into an ethereal distance. Another strange thing about the sorcerer was that his chest did not move with the normal rhythm of breathing and Slink wondered momentarily if the old man may have died whilst in his trance. He observed the human statue for several minutes and saw not a muscle twitch or an eye blink.
Somewhere in the darkness the thief had caught a faint glint of red fire. It was no more than a brief glow of an ember and then it vanished. Carefully he searched the deepening gloom with his keen eyes until he saw a blob that, under closer scrutiny, proved to be one of the statues standing on its pedestal. Slowly Slink moved along the wall keeping in the darker patches. His soft leather boots, designed by elfin cobblers, moved silently over the floor making no more noise than a shadow would. Another quick glance at the old wizard satisfied Slink the old man hadn't moved, so he continued his cautious glide towards the spot where he had seen the glow.
After what seemed ages of cautious movement Slink reached his objective. He studied the statue, straining his night vision to the limit to get a clear impression of the form. It was a figurine shaped from a shiny black rock, probably onyx. The statue stood about two feet in height. It portrayed a pirate standing with both hands on hips. He held his head back and cocked to one side as if listening to a distant sound. Dangling from the cocked ear's lobe was the object that had caught Slink's attention. It was a ring fashioned of a gemstone the colour of fresh, dark blood and Slink needed no jeweller to tell him it was garnet.
Using his keen night sight, the thief studied the ring carefully, peering closely at the point where the gemstone passed through the onyx lobe. Reaching out gingerly he took the small circlet between his forefinger and thumb and gently rotated it trying to find a gap. There was no gap in the ring that he could see, nor was there any breach in the statue's ear lobe. Slink frowned and glanced over to where the tiny figure of the magician sat seemingly a mile away. The old shaman had still not moved even the slightest bit from the original position in which Slink had first seen him. He decided a risk was worth it, especially since the old man's back was towards him. Carefully he removed Wurmfang from its scabbard, shielding the blade with his free hand, and placed it near the ear lobe. The blade's light made the object clear to his sight and again he studied the method used to fix the ring within the lobe. Still there was no sign of a seam; both the lobe and the ring were unblemished and Slink could only assume it magically implanted.
Another worried glance at the meditating mage assured him he was yet undiscovered so he placed wurmfang's point within the ring's circle and twisted carefully. Suddenly he felt a weird tingle through the dagger and the air shimmered around its point, then the ring fell free. So surprised was Slink that he snaked his hand out belatedly catching the object only inches from the floor upon which, had the ring struck the hard marble, it would surely have shattered.
Replacing Wurmfang into its scabbard Slink tried on the ring. It slipped easily onto his right ring finger and seemed to snuggle itself onto Slink's flesh in a tight, but comfortable fit. As it did so it released a small flare of bright red light that played once, sprite-like, around its entire perimeter before dying away to blackness. Slink admired his newly acquired object, fascinated by it. The ring appeared alive somehow; appeared to pulse and breathe. This was definitely no ordinary garnet trinket.
A low groan made Slink glance up hurriedly at the old man. This time he had moved although only slightly. The head had tipped back somewhat and slightly to one side although the eyes still stared into nothing. Somehow Slink could feel the mage's mind searching through the shadows; heard psychic footsteps echo in his mind as the questing mage sought a disturbance in his astral field. The thief shrunk even further back into the depths of the shadows holding his breath as he sensed the probing mind go past. Then it was gone and the silence returned.
Slowly the thief released his breath unaware that he had been holding it until this moment. Again he studied the old sorcerer and saw the Drachen lord had returned to his trance. With the grace of a panther he moved off the wall and continued his careful journey around the room. Another statue further over had caught his attention. He was sure he could see a smudge of orange light so faint it appeared cloaked in deep fog.
Beyond the chamber door Yaathnaronz grunted, shifting his head in a sharp upward motion akin to a bull slashing at the air with his horns. The demon had felt a tingle through his brawny frame and a lightening as if a bond of red-hot chain had been taken from him. Deep in his psyche he felt the flaming bond part in a shower of supernatural sparks before flickering out of existence. He took a step towards the door and stopped, mouth agape, a chainsaw cluster of uneven spikes churning backwards into his throat. His eyes smouldered as he gazed at the door with hungry anticipation.
Slink had reached the figurine. Before him stood the statue of a bull carved from the purest of pink marble. The massive body was crouched, head lowered and eyes glaring, in the classic stance of a bull about to charge. Clamped firmly in its gaping nostrils was an amber ring. This time Slink did not even hesitate but drew Wurmfang and repeated the twist within its circle. Again the ring fell free with the same strange tingle and shimmer, but this time into his waiting hand. As he slipped it onto the middle finger of his right hand he turned to look at the mage still in the room's center.
The magician moved his head. Slowly his face rotated until he was facing Slink's position. Again the thief felt the psychic probe only this time he saw two ghostly orbs floating in the darkness, bobbing about five feet off the ground in time to the echoing footsteps. Once more they passed him as he stood rock still and it was with an effort that the thief restrained his cry as he saw the ghostly orbs up close. They were a pair of disembodied eyes, optical nerves attached, moving independently in their search. As they passed he looked again at the magician and saw the empty sockets staring his way, dark pits within the withered skull.
When the old man resumed his astral journey, Slink moved again. He felt encouraged by the fact that he had found two of the rings so quickly. Slink decided that it was not a rash assumption to conclude that the other two would also be somewhere in the room. As if in answer to his thought, a faint turquoise glow welled and ebbed further around the perimeter of the wall.
Yaathnaronz grinned as he felt the clay bonds crumble into dust from around his heart. Soon he would be freed. Soon he would be able to journey back to hell. Home, where he would be free to pursue his demented pleasures. Should the little thief be successful, there would be a party in his corner of hell that night!
The turquoise ring was wrapped around the throat of a Negro girl carved out of deep brown timber. She had a long, shapely neck and full lips parted in a friendly smile. Her body, naked to the waist, was sensuous with pert breasts and full hips. The master carver who had made this statue had captured a sensation of grace and beauty that almost brought tears to the eyes. Slink removed the blue-green choker in the same manner and caught it deftly in his left hand. This time he placed the ring onto his left ring finger and waited as it snuggled to him with its brief flash of cool green flame. In the centre of the room the wizard stiffened. His hands came up to cradle his head and a thin scream issued from leathery lips. Again the footsteps, urgent now, questing blindly for the pebble that disturbed the psychic pond. The eyes roved in separate darting motions probing the darkness with a sense of urgency. This time Slink heard a distant voice whispering, softly at first but growing in nearness and volume.
"Who...who dares? Who dares..." repeated over and over. The shaman was awakening. There was no more time.
Slink glanced wildly around the room but couldn't see anything that resembled a ring. Indeed the darkness was receding; the room growing brighter, revealing that there were no other statues or figurines wearing odd bits of jewellery.
Yaathnaronz felt the bond rupture. Metaphysical chains sundering from his psyche as if links of ice had suddenly melted and cascaded away. He stretched his physical bulk to full height throwing back his misshapen arms as a sleeper might stretch upon awakening. One more restraint fettered his dark soul wrapping him in nebulous wafts of pure, untainted air. His enormous fist moved forward in a powerful thrust calculated to shatter the door, but stopped short. A dull boom echoed within the chamber as his knuckles struck the bonded portal with diminished force and his face yawned with anguish. From within there came to him the sweet smell of living souls and his hunger craved for a taste while his yearning grew to return to hell. The final bond held him fast and now he struggled against it.
"You are dead." The wizard screamed. Coils of living flame surrounded him and he began to grow in stature. The weathered face changed until a dark, demonic visage had replaced it and the eyes blazed with a blue-white glare that was blinding to Slink. Turning his head to one side, the thief brought wurmfang up to deflect the searing light as the mage brought up his arms in preparation to conjure. The final ring! Slink ducked down and sidled to one side keeping the blade up as a shield whilst his badly assailed eyes sought to focus on the room. He knew that he would soon be dead or worse should the magician unleash his power unless he could locate the final band.
"Fyrian aid me." The mage bellowed, thrusting his index finger towards the thief in an aggressive pointing gesture. His body bubbled and bloated to twice its size and threads of blue lightning arched upwards towards the high domed ceiling. Slink dived at the hard marble floor, rolling out of the way of the expected attack but none was forthcoming. Slink glanced at the sorcerer as he hurried around the edge of the room still franticly searching for the azure ring. The wizard was staring blankly at his inoperative finger as if he could not believe that it hadn't fired. As Slink reached the wall, the wizard recovered his poise and pointed again, this time crying for Erth's assistance. Again there was no magical response.
Slink was still moving crab-like around the wall his attention fully upon searching the shadows. The sorcerer had fallen on all fours and was now shape changing, his body elongating, flattening and growing scaly. The face lost its demon continence as it twisted and grew until a large, black dragon stood on the midnight marble floor. That was when slink saw the azure circlet high above his head, hanging suspended by a thin silver cable from the centre of the dome. It glowed with such a burst of brightness that the thief almost believed it was screaming to him, "Up here! I'm up here."
As swift as a rabid snake, the black dragon closed with the hooded thief, its scales rustling menacingly across the smooth marble floor.
Slink bounded up from the balls of his feet, leaping forward as he slashed down with wurmfang. The magically treated steel carved a long, bloody furrow in the hide of the beast, from behind the left eye to the left shoulder, along its back. Sticky ichor, the colour of old pus, oozed from the wound, smoking and hissing where it touched the floor.
Deftly landing on his feet, Slink whirled to face the wizard-cum-lizard, the were-dragon. He held his dagger stretched out in front of him, body swaying on the balls of his feet.
Outside the chamber Yaathnaronz channelled his thoughts, concentrating upon his Place of Power deep in the bowels of hell. He pictured the flickering world of incandescent shadows and called upon the cauldron of souls crying for mercy they would never know. He sucked in his breath and watched in glee as a stream of screeching souls crossed the temporal barrier between life and death and careered into his waiting maw. Strength flowed through him as the first sounds of battle came through the stout wooden barrier before him and he felt power welling up in his own putrid soul. Flexing metaphysical muscles he sensed the remaining bond stretch, momentarily losing its tenacious hold upon his will. At that moment he struck out again with his fists.
All the demonic power and rage of hell's creature went into the blow and the portal shattered into a million flying splinters with a thunderous explosion. Yaathnaronz crossed the threshold into the giant, circular room.
The door exploded inward causing the two combatants to freeze momentarily in order to assess the newest danger. The dragon image shimmered and flowed, alternating between an old man crawling on all fours and a mighty dragon, as the burning eyes surveyed the bulky demon. Yaathnaronz's teeth were shark-like, each as large as a butcher's killing knife and they dripped blood as they churned backwards into the monster's throat.
"By my wards I command you. Destroy this intruder."
Slink saw that the wizard now stood before him, side on to both him and the demon. He had grown younger until the flesh on his face was firm, his eyes a blazing blue. The finger pointing gesture seemed a favourite one as he was using it again, this time to Yaathnaronz.
The demon blinked as the fetter around his soul constricted again, partially robbing him of his will. Drawing upon a remaining reserve of energy he shrugged off the command inwardly, although remaining expressionless in his outward appearance.
"Yes master, you abominable turd." The demon growled. His teeth had shrunk and twisted until they resembled those of a monster cat. Saliva dribbled from his maw. Slowly he moved forward while his eyes remained firmly fixed on the sage.
"The upstart, demon. Suck out his soul and then return to your domain." The wizard prudently stepped out of the way as the bulky demon passed him, a sulphurous cloud rising from his footsteps, swirling around his waist.
"No. Yaathnaronz! We have a deal." Slink shouted holding up his free hand in a "stop" symbol.
"I will do my bidding, little man. I will pick you up like a soap bubble and show the wizard worm how grimly I can dispose of you."
Slink glanced at the mage who was staring at the demon's back. Obviously the demon's message had meant nothing to him as a small smile of triumph curled his cruel lips. Slink brandished his dagger at the monster and replied, "You know not the powers of this stinger, beast, for with it shall I dispatch you into the nether regions."
Yaathnaronz roared, lunging, and grasped the hapless thief around the waist with his oddly shaped hands. Slink turned his face up towards the ceiling, his mouth twisted in a grimace of pain. His hands reached upward with wurmfang clutched tightly in his right fist.
"I am undone." he screamed as the demon launched him high into the air.
For a fleeting moment Slink saw the wizard hopping up and down, clapping his hands with glee, then his left fingers came into contact with a small, cool circle. During that infinitely small pause at the top of his arc, during that tiny moment between rising and falling, Slink thrust the point of his dagger through the circle clutched between his left forefinger and thumb. Again the tingle, again a brief flash of light and the circle came free. He dropped the dagger as he began his descent, thrusting the ring onto his right index finger.
A ground-shaking roar erupted from below him as the last bond blew away from the demon's soul leaving him free to act against the impertinent magician who had dragged him unwillingly from his realm. The man screamed with raw fear and his body shrank and crumpled back to that of an old man. Bony, liver-spotted hands trembled as he held them before him while thin threads of spittle flew from ancient lips.
"No! No! Yaathnaronz. You promised...we had a deal!"
Slink hit the ground, rolling forward to break his fall and ended the manoeuvre by standing back up onto his feet. He grinned at the terrified wizard as the demon approached.
"It's dinner time, Ultrich, and I think he fancies some beef jerky."
"Get him off." Screamed the sage, running awkwardly backwards, hands still fending off the looming threat.
"You know the rules, old one. Once summonsed he must return to his realm with a soul. I'd rather it be yours than mine." And with these words Slink stooped over, looking at the floor in effort to locate his dagger.
The demon's grin widened until his maw was like a small cavern with malformed stalagmites and stalactites appearing at the front of his palate only to march back down his throat. Long and blunt, they would tear at flesh causing excruciating agony as they crushed the life from their prey. A bunch of claws flashed out and lifted the wizard off his feet, throwing him casually, kicking and screaming, into the waiting trap.
"Damn, where's that dagger" muttered Slink as he kept his eyes to the ground. As evil as Ultrich was, he could not stand to watch his grisly demise. He kept up his pretence of searching for wurmfang until the agonising screams had ceased even though he had actually located his blade when he had first looked down.
With the wizard gone the large room seemed to lighten and Slink saw all the statues and pedestals quite clearly. The demon cocked his head and wiped a trickle of blood from his jowls while looking at him.
"And so is it done. I return to my own realm now for I yearn to sport with this mage's soul." Slowly the air around the demon began to swirl, taking on a smoky appearance and the reek of sulphur became noticeable in the air.
"Farewell Slink, kin to Taratheleon." The demon said as he raised a gnarled talon that bristled with claws. He began to fade out, then came back to solid form again.
"I wish to warn you of one final thing. Beware the rings, gentle Slink, for they hold within them the power to enslave the world of man. The wicked covert them whilst the wise fear them. They will bring this world nought but misery and evil, for such is their power."
A huge cloud of yellow smoke billowed from a point in the air before the demon, swirling around the giant until he was obscured. When, a few seconds later, the cloud collapsed into itself the demon had vanished.
"Use the bands, rule them all" Whispered a voice dry with age.
"The power! Power to do whatever you will" Screeched another.
"Earth and air, fire and water, Carve a kingdom with the slaughter..." This voice droned in a chant Slink recognised as magical cantrap while in the background he could hear a maniacal chuckle.
Visions crowded in his mind. He sat upon a large black steed with a scorpion's tail that lashed wickedly to each side. Wind screeched and moaned, stripping trees of their leaves. Rain and ice sliced the air, while great cracks appeared in the ground belching fire and smoke. The eyes of the steed blazed like red coals while a spurt of fire belched from a mouth beset with shark-like teeth. Cloven hooves trod upon corpses so badly mutilated they did not seem human.
His eyes were filled with madness as his mouth twisted in a rictus grin and produced a crazy sound that parodied a laugh. He raised his fist. Four rings set one upon each finger glowed in their individual colours...amber for earth, red for fire, azure for air and turquoise for water. A wicked flame belched forth from them and the air was filled with screaming...
Slink shook his head and looked at the gaping portal that led to freedom. He had been promised if he gave the rings to King Damatar, he would receive absolution for all past crimes committed in Taal and enough riches to tide him over for many years. Slowly he made his way to the portal stepping over the flinders of wood scattered upon the dark marble floor. He brooded all the way as he negotiated passages that now held only the mundane threats of spiders or the occasional adder that had found its way in out of the heat. He was still pondering as he exited through the brass bound door that he had entered earlier that day.
Once outside he looked up towards the summit of the mountain where a lazy column of smoke streamed out of the mountain's guts. He smiled and set his feet upon the narrow, winding track.
Slink slipped off the four rings and held them up to the light alternatively marvelling at the bright colour scintillating from each one. It was as if he held the pure essence of the four elements cupped in the palm of his hand. A blaze of red for fire, clear and pure azure for air, deep and mysterious turquoise for water and the rich, dark amber that was for earth. The tiny circles seemed to pulse with their own life and Slink held them for a lengthy moment before tossing them carefully towards the centre of the eddying pool. Slink watched with a slight smile as the four rings of power plunged into the lava with only a brief sparkle of liquid fire to mark their passing. He stood a moment more while deciding where to journey from here as, doubtlessly, Kroth would be awaiting his return now that the rings had gone. Looking up at the blue summer sky above, from where the afternoon sun shone down cheerily, he decided that Shellaa might be nice this time of year. Sighing heavily at the thought of all the treasure he could have had, he shrugged and turned down the mountain, whistling a jaunty tune.
My Bio: - I am 44 years old, male and live in Port Lincoln, South Australia where I work as a police sergeant. Writing has been a hobby of mine for about ten years, although I have written stories earlier than that. To date I have not sold to a publisher. I am married with two children, a boy 22 yrs and a girl 19 yrs.
You can e-mail Rene at: email@example.com
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