Along the distant horizon, the few remaining beams of sunlight shine through dark, slow-rolling storm clouds. With help from the constant strong bellows of wind, towering oak and pine trees sway back and forth with one another, the wood in their trunks and branches creaking with each gust. Low, monstrous thunder rumbles from the approaching storm, echoing down into the narrow canyon that winds its way through the mountainous landscape.
Deep at the bottom of the shadowy gorge, roughly a hundred soldiers, all dressed in heavy fourteenth-century silver-plated battle armor, sit upon their equally armored horses. Dark-blue cloth dresses the reins and saddles, matching the long, vertical flags carried by the six bannermen scattered throughout the group. Icy breaths from the horses’ and men’s nostrils create the illusion of a thin fog in the air surrounding them. Their damp hair hangs below their helmets, their expressions tired from battle and constant traveling. All of the men remain still and silent in an idle marching formation.
Each pair of eyes stare straight ahead, all fixed on the same point. A hundred feet ahead of the leading soldier, the rocky walls gradually tighten until they meet at the end of the canyon. Carved into the stone is what appears to be a small entrance to a cave.
With an eerie howl, barely louder than a whisper, the air is suddenly pushed out from the cave, blowing the hanging moss wildly into the canyon. Most of the horses toward the front of the line whinny and take steps backward while their riders shout orders and try to calm them.
Even through the commotion, the man leading the army remains motionless, waiting for the wind to return to normal and the others to quiet. After a thoughtful pause, the man dismounts his horse, moving underneath his chain mail and well-sculpted steel plating with ease. As his feet meet the ground, he hears a stir behind him as other men begin to follow.
He turns to face them. The moment his men can see his eyes, they stop in their places, frozen under his stern gaze.
His face is confident and strong, tired from over sixty years of life and worn from well over forty years of hard battle. Deep wrinkles have begun to settle in from the hours spent under the powerful midday sun. The hair on his head and matching facial hair is dark with scattered hints of gray and white.
He growls to his men, “No. I need to go alone.”
The soldiers exchange unsure glances, hesitant about Torrin’s command, but each of them obeys as he makes his way toward the entrance of the cave. His pace slows as he stands just two steps in front of the opening, staring into the intense darkness.
Another gust of air emits from the cavern, accompanied by the same eerie howl. Torrin’s eyes narrow from the icy wind, ignoring the sounds of the horses and frightened men behind him. As quickly as it came, the air is calm once again. With a deep inhale of confidence, Torrin ducks inside, his figure immediately consumed by the shadows.
Crouching, keeping his head low of the hanging cave moss and cobwebs, Torrin moves cautiously, step by step, into the tunnel. His upper lip curls in irritation as he notices his feet beginning to stick into pools of wet mud hidden between the jagged rocks on the floor. Using his hand, he feels along the coarse and damp wall to keep himself steady.
Minutes pass by and quickly stretch into an entire hour as his frustration builds. He pauses, attempting to regain his composure, but something else rattles his already-shaken nerves. Another howl, without the accompanying push of air. Torrin listens closely to the ghostly noise. This time, he notices a sound deep within the cry, a sound that imitates the raspy breathing of an old woman.
As the wail fades away Torrin continues, heading deeper into the tunnel at a faster pace. After another hundred feet he turns a sharp, narrow corner and stops. Before him the path comes to an end, a faint light emitting from an opening in the darkness. Eagerly, Torrin hurries to the hole and steps out into a massive cavern.
With his eyes open wide in awe, Torrin gazes around the chasm, more than a hundred yards wide and equally as tall. His eyes are quickly drawn to bright moonlight pouring into the cave from a small opening in the far-left side.
Had it taken him that long to make his way through the tunnel? His men must be concerned, and hopefully had not taken it upon themselves to follow him.
Careful not to become distracted, he inspects his surroundings. The walls and flooring of the cavern look the way the tunnel had felt. Powerful, smooth granite peeks out from behind the thick, damp moss covering the wall and ceiling.
Down at his feet, puddles of water spot the muddy ground. Taking a few steps forward, his eyes follow a trickling stream of water down into a larger body of water. Surprised he hadn’t noticed before, Torrin stops at the edge of an enormous lake hidden under a thin layer of fog.
Along the top of the glassy water, Torrin notices dark figures swimming slowly in a circular pattern. He squints to see the large fish, but soon realizes the stillness of the lake has caused an illusion and the fish are actually a reflection of something overhead. Midway between the water and the top of the cave, dozens of large vultures fly ominously, silently circling above the center of the lake.
Underneath the buzzards rests a small landmass, no wider than twenty yards in width. In the very center of the island stands a tall, black structure—a cage. Perched along the pointed top are more vultures and a few large crows. Makeshift walls cover the back and sides of the enclosure, made from large pieces of worn, tattered cloth.
First the lake, and now the island? How had it taken him so long to notice? Apprehension rushes over Torrin as he realizes he may only be seeing what he is supposed to see. What the inhabitant of the cave wants him to see. He then notices the front of the cage has been left wide open. Waiting inside must be what he has come for.
Glancing once again at the vultures, he begins to search around the front of the island to find a way across. He takes a few steps back, away from the lake, and starts moving to his right.
When he is directly across from the open door of the cage, there is a break in the fog. Through it he sees a narrow wooden walkway leading across to the island. He walks down to the edge of the water and very cautiously takes one step onto the rickety bridge. The aged, moist wood cracks and creaks from the pressure of his weight. Moving at a maddeningly slow pace, he makes his way across the overpass until reaching the rocky landmass.
A soft breeze brushes against his face, and he gags and coughs, covering his mouth and nose from the wretched smell coming from the pen. The all-too-familiar aroma of death. With the burning still pungent in his nostrils, he takes a deep breath of icy air and enters the cage.
The interior of the rusted, iron cage is lined with wooden cabinets that stand as tall as the frame of the structure. Each cupboard houses dozens of shelves, all packed from side to side, front to back. The majority of the contents are hundreds of bottles, all different shapes and sizes. None of them are labeled, but a closer look reveals some are filled with strange, unidentifiable liquids of all consistencies and colors, while others contain a more recognizable substance—thick, dark-red blood. Larger containers toward the rear of the shelves and placed along the wet ground are stuffed with bones and parts of rodents, birds, and other animals. Some of the pieces appear to be human.
Swatting flies away from his face, Torrin cringes in disgust, trying to keep his churning stomach at bay. While reaching to cover his mouth and nose once again, he looks down when his foot brushes against something on the ground. He remains still, only his eyes moving from body to body. Half-rotted carcasses of animals are scattered along the mossy floor. Dead vultures, other birds, rats, rabbits, and the most noticeable, a large male deer, all lay around Torrin’s feet.
Suddenly, a bizarre and unexpected feeling of hope washes over Torrin. His hand slides down from his face as he looks from the buck to a few of the other animals. Each of the creatures has a matching wound. A violent, bloody bite mark is on the neck of each body where it connects to the jaw line.
Though he had heard all the rumors and superstitions, he wasn’t sure he had believed any of them. Until now. He was sure now that it was all true and that his long travels weren’t for nothing. He would get what he came for. Only one thing was missing.
Being alone with just the dead animals, Torrin realizes what he is looking for must be somewhere else in the cave. What, or who?
With his hand now gripped firmly on the base of his sword hanging at his hip, he turns to exit the cage and gasps in terror when he realizes that something is now blocking his way out. Torrin stumbles backward, his fist tightening around his weapon.
The figure standing before him remains still, watching him carefully with piercing, oily-black eyes. As Torrin stares back, his breathing gradually slows as the realization of what stands before him settles in. Not what, but who. Or more precisely, her.
The small, old woman doesn’t appear to be breathing, her eyes locked on her intruder. Her torn, ragged silk dress hangs loosely around her, the long train dragging along the ground. Smeared with dirt and spotted with blood, the soft gray and glistening-white color is hardly distinguishable. Her skin is so pale that it is practically translucent. Her face is smooth and vibrant in texture, but still worn and mature, making her actual age impossible to guess. Long, white hair hangs down her back almost to her knees, with a few wispy strands flowing over her eyes and sharp cheekbones.
Waiting for her to speak, Torrin stands up straight, keeping his hand readily at his sword. After a few moments, his patience comes to an end.
“Are you the Lady of the Mountain?”
“I have traveled a great distance, and countless days, to find you.”
His brow deepens as his frustration grows. He attempts another technique and broadens his shoulders to appear more intimidating, then speaks again with his voice raised in anger. “I have a hundred armed men waiting for me outside!”
An icy chill hits Torrin like a hammer as the Lady finally speaks. “Empty threats.”
With her dress pulling behind her, she crouches forward and scurries toward Torrin. He hurriedly steps out of her way as she continues past him to the rear wall. Bottles clank together and some come crashing down to the ground as the Lady searches through the shelves’ contents. With Torrin watching her anxiously, she speaks again. “The great warrior wishes to be immortal,” she snickers. “Age has made him weak.”
Snarling from the insult, Torrin masks the annoyance in his voice, not wanting to anger her. “I was told you could give me that power.”
The Lady’s hand stops suddenly, hovering over a particularly cluttered spot on a shelf. She reaches her bony hand through a few tall bottles and a dead bird, grasping a long, double-edged dagger hidden in the disorder.
Turning to face Torrin, a grave tone engulfs her speech. “Immortality is one of many gifts. You will have them all. At a price.”
“Anything,” Torrin says desperately. He instinctively takes a step toward the woman, intrigued despite the weapon in her hand.
She raises her empty hand into the air with the palm facing upward. “By accepting this dark gift, you alter your future. Your purpose.”
Nodding confidently, Torrin replies, “I understand.”
In a single, graceful motion, the Lady takes the sharp dagger and drags it across her naked palm, leaving a long, bloody slice through the center. Raising her bleeding hand toward him once again, she rasps, “In this—Immortality. Death. Power. Prophecy.”
Uncertain what to do, Torrin hesitantly moves toward her. Stopping just a step away, he towers over her and realizes how small and frail she appears. Feeling foolish for being so frightened, his stance broadens, and he confidently reaches his left hand across to take her injured hand.
His self-assurance is short-lived when, with an abrupt incline of her head, Torrin swiftly pulls his hand away in panic. The Lady leans closer to him and extends her fingers even more, making her hand completely flat.
She sneers, “Do not fail me.”
Once again, Torrin reaches for her hand, this time more speedily. Before he can take it, her eyes widen, and she snarls viciously. With her bloody hand now clutched in a tight fist, she jams it hard into the center of Torrin’s chest, right through his armor. He screams in agony and drops to his knees, the woman’s hand still inside of him up to her wrist. Torrin reaches up and grabs her arm to pull himself free, but stops when he feels the sharp, cold metal of the dagger rest across his throat.
Using the knife, the Lady pushes up, forcing Torrin to look directly into her eyes. The blade glides across his neck without breaking the skin, stopping at the left side of his throat. It pushes hard against the large, pulsing vein in his neck.
The Lady of the Mountain leans down closer to his face. Torrin’s eyes widen in horror as he watches her already-sharp canines grow into long, vicious fangs.
Startled, the vultures and crows take off from their perches along the top of the cage, flying into the bright moonlight as Torrin’s tortured scream fills the vast cavern, echoing through the tunnels and out into the night.