The magnificent hawk responded to the call at once, flying over to his master and alighting on the ranger’s shoulder. Reanald Dortius turned his back on the chaos behind him, confident that none of the orcs would be so foolish as to attack him from behind. They had wanted his fabulous bow as payment to see their dark lord, Eb Kath’Eshetheron, which was orcish for The Shadow Demon, but Reanald had negotiated with them. Instead of his bow, he had offered them arrows.
At first, the orcs had refused, but after the ranger had given them a dozen of the arrows, shot from his bow in the blink of an eye, they saw the light and decided to accept his generous offer. The hawk had been eager to negotiate also, swooping down on the orcs, slashing them with his talons and beak, letting them know why his master called him Razor.
“You can have your fun once we return, my friend,” Reanald told the bird as it settled on his shoulder, the hawk’s claws gripping onto the padding he wore for just that purpose. “Once we return with the scepter, I’ll let you terrorize as many orcs as you want. What do you think of that?”
When the bird didn’t respond, Reanald turned to look at him. The hawk held a bloody ear in his beak. Reanald laughed at his companion and held out an open hand to catch the trophy. Razor let it go and then let his master know what he thought about orcs.
“Very good,” the ranger chuckled. “But for now, I will need your eyes. I am guessing that the orcs do not keep this passageway as well-lit as the monks did.” Razor agreed with a stifled chirp and concentrated his keen eyes on the blackness before them.
The monastery existed in two parts. The outer half had been built on the side of the mountain and consisted of large halls supported by great pillars. It could be seen from dozens of miles away, its gray exterior rising above the mountain’s tree line. But it got cold in the winter, and the monks had extended their home deep into the mountain. The hallways inside were not as grand in size but had once been so in design. Fabulous banners had been hung in the relatively narrow halls, and the stone had been crafted and shaped as if the dwarves themselves had lent their expertise. The halls were filled with grand fireplaces and luxurious accommodations. Torches had hung in every corner, and lamps were suspended from the ceilings of the larger rooms.
Now it was dark. The banners had fallen apart. The torches were nothing but burnt sticks, broken and rotted on the ground. The orcs didn’t come down here. The passage into the heart of the mountain was not hidden and had been a prominent gateway in its day, but the orcs, as dumb as they were, did not venture out of the upper monastery no matter how cold it became.
The monks had been wise to create this elaborate fortress, but they had gone too deep. In his research, Reanald read that the monks had awoken a hell beast. It stormed through the halls, but they managed to magically seal it within one of the large lower chambers. There was no good description of the monster in the books, but Reanald had faced off against dragons and worse, so he felt confident as he made his way down the dark corridors.
If what the orcs had said were true and this creature was a shadow demon, then the ranger was happy he had not traded in his bow. He gripped the weapon tightly in his right hand, the sun gems at either end of the bow glowing slightly. He relaxed his grip quickly once he saw the dim light surround him. He did not want to give away his location if he did not have to. If those before him had walked these halls carrying a torch, it was no wonder they had failed.
“Razor,” he whispered, “fly ahead and be my eyes.” The hawk soundlessly took to the air, gliding gently down the hall and out of sight. Reanald closed his eyes, fell into the link with his companion, and continued forward. He had seen that the floor was clear of debris, and the ranger walked confidently along, his eyes seeing the tunnels ahead of him.
The sensation of flying was nothing new to the ranger, for he and Razor had perfected this union over many years. He had used the hawk’s vision not only to spy on adversaries but also to fire his bow accurately in the dead of night. The hawk flew forward quickly, spying every nook and cranny, eliminating any chance of an ambush and giving Reanald a complete look at each room before he entered.
It was not difficult to figure out which way they needed to go, and all they had to do was follow the darkness. Light, what little there was that made its way down the chimneys and from the entrance above was sucked into the bowels of the ancient monastery, and the two friends found themselves traveling within the current.
Reanald felt the chill first through Razor. Contrary to what one would assume, the temperature dropped considerably as they journeyed toward the center of the mountain. But this chill was more than a drop in air temperature. It was something that chilled the soul as well as the body.
As Razor flew into an old weapon room with the gym beyond, Reanald knew where the beast was kept. He sent a thought of warning to his pet but would never assume to control the hawk. Razor had a mind of his own, and despite the warning, he flew into the gym.
Reanald stopped, concentrating on his visual link. He was still a minute or two from the gym, but he needed to see what he was up against. The hawk could usually see in the darkest of caves, pulling light from the slightest reflection or the most minute heat source, but there was nothing in the monks’ old gym. Nothing but cold and shadow.
Reanald started walking again, taking it slowly while still casting his vision off ahead. The hawk circled about the open space, somehow sensing where the walls were but not seeing anything else. It was a noise – not a movement – that caught their attention. It was the sound of leather over stone, a faint rustle that could only be heard in the deepest of silence.
Their collective eyes turned to the sound, and they saw a pair of eyes staring back at them. They weren’t the fiery red of a demon but the frosty blue of an ice giant. However, they lacked the giant kind’s gentleness and were as tempestuous as a blizzard at sea.
Razor was frozen in place; Reanald could do nothing but watch. There were teeth suddenly, made visible only because the hell beast wanted them to be. They were as sharp as frost blades, with a canine maw as hideous as Reanald had ever seen.
Then there was motion, a frantic blurring of shadow, as a clawed hand, made visible only briefly, lashed out. Reanald sensed a flurry of wings and feathers, a sharp, bone-chilling pain, and then darkness. “Razor,” Reanald whimpered, falling to his knees in shock.
The hawk was dead; Reanald knew it as surely as he could feel the cold stone floor beneath him. If he were just doing this for the wizard, he would have turned back now. Even the promise that Warrick Conquera had made to return him his lost honor, stolen by the arrogant duke, was not enough for him to continue. But this beast had killed his companion, for that Reanald would keep going.
Reanald stood up and blinked his eyes. He could not tell the difference between when his eyes were open or closed. He thought about using his bow to illuminate the area but didn’t. His memory was good, and he had moved across much more uneven terrain than this leveled floor having only Razor’s eyes to guide him. The ranger walked forward with a purpose.
He sensed the death more than anything else as he entered the weapon room. Reanald remembered seeing rotted staves and other polearms lying on the floor from when Razor had flown through the space and did his best to stay in the middle away from the walls where he might slip and fall on the round weapons.
Though he could not see his hand three inches from his face, he could see the doorway. In a room of inky blackness, a distinct rectangle was even darker. And even without that, Reanald could feel the rushing current of life being pulled into the larger room and swallowed whole.
Reanald almost lost his nerve right there. Fear consumed him, and he nearly turned and ran, but he couldn’t. Whatever honor the duke might have stolen from him in the public’s eye, he still held onto it in his heart, and he would not flee from this creature until he had tested it with his best. Whimpering in the dark was not his best.
The ranger pulled an arrow over his shoulder and lifted his bow, aiming into the adjoining room. His movements were silent and sure. He did not need to see to catch the end of his arrow on the bowstring, as it was a motion he had done a thousand times. He pulled the shaft back and waited a few short seconds as the sun gems at the top and bottom of the bow rotated into position.
The gems locked into place, and two beams of intense sunlight, no wider than a string shown into the gym. They struck the far wall of the large room some two hundred feet away, focusing into a tight circle of light the size of a child’s ring. Reanald perceived movement to the right, adjusted his aim, heard a sharp sizzling sound, and fired.
Reanald retreated twenty quick steps back to the entrance of the small storage area. He had another arrow ready, and as a haze shot into the small room, the sunbeam shone again, and he fired. The shadow left the room just as quickly, and Reanald readied another arrow, his heart in his throat.
What was that thing? Had that been its arm? Its head? Its whole body? Reanald had not seen much through the eyes of Razor. All he remembered were the eyes and teeth, and as he focused on those, his body began to shake with fear. He tried to throw the images from his mind, but he was in total darkness and could see nothing else.
Reanald willed some more light from his bow. The sunbeams lit up only a tiny point on the far wall, but soon the weapon storage room was bathed in a soft yellow glow. It was just as Razor had shown to him, weapons scattered about and racks in disarray. The darkness of the open doorway to the gym was impenetrable.
The ranger crept toward the opening, aiming his cocked bow through the doorway as soon as he had a firing angle. The sunbeams hit the far wall of the gym again. He moved the dot of light about slowly, his right hand twitching on the string, ready to let fly as soon as the sunbeams found the hazy flesh of this hideous creature. He moved it all about, but the room appeared to be empty.
What if it had circled around and was now behind him? Frantically, Reanald turned back the way he had come. Nothing. But now it could be coming through from the gym! He turned back, taking several hasty steps to put the wall at his back, forgetting about the weapons on the floor. Reanald slipped, his bow going high and firing. The arrow skittered off the nearby ceiling as he flailed his arms and fell back against the rotted weapon racks.
He regained his footing as quickly as he could, his heart pounding. Crouching low amongst the broken wood, the cold wall against his back, he had another arrow out, his magical bow peering into the darkness in front of him. He felt suddenly alone.
“I have come for the Scepter of Amon,” he cried out, his voice startling him as it echoed in the cold, dark cavern. “My bow can hurt you. Give me the scepter, and I will be on my way.”
AS YOU WISH.
The voice was nothing more than a whisper, yet it reverberated through the room. Reanald shivered in the cold as he waited. He heard the rushing air of something flying at him and dodged to the side as a heavy object crashed into the wooden rods behind him. As Reanald reached down for the item, he realized that this creature must be able to see him as clear as day to make such an accurate throw.
His hand closed on something soft and covered with feathers.
In a flash, the ranger stood from the jumbled wood, anger dominating his actions. He strode forward, walking straight into the gym with his bow up and shining bright. For once, the light penetrated the darkness. The intensity of the shadow retreated just for a moment, giving Reanald a full view of what he faced. The teeth, the eyes, the scales, the wings, the despair . . . it all washed over him in an instant, and he dropped his bow.
The shadow took him.