“BRIN, THIS IS CRAZY!” the skinny young man yelled over the howling wind. A blizzard whiteout buried the night, except for a flickering shaft of emerald and azure radiance spearing from a doorway atop a nearby hill. Gusts of swirling snow like angry spirits burst from the entrance, then swept down the slope toward the two men.
With Thom behind him, Brin sprinted up the terraces of powder. It entangled his tall boots as though alive with snow snakes. The blond man-child lifted his knees higher, fighting through the frozen sands. Savage blasts of bitter air and hail threatened to tear away his cloak and cut through his tabard to flay skin to bone. As he raced closer, the doorway of strange light became an alleyway between two large stone structures. They seemed to drift toward him, looming shadows against the flickering brilliance. Several steps away from the alley, he paused to catch his breath and glance back. Thom flailed in the snow but struggled after him.
The wind howled again, screaming along the walls and drifts of the alley, then snow-blasted Brin. He ducked under his cloak and wished he hadn’t lost his hat.
Thom stumbled into him and fell down. Cursing a blue streak, he rolled to his knees, pulling his cloak over him. His dark mustache, brows and hair held rime. Brin figured he looked much the same, a blond snowman. “BRIN! WHY’RE WE DOING THIS? IS THERE A LOVELY DAMSEL IN DISTRESS?!”
“I HOPE SO!”
“YOU’RE DREAMING! REMEMBER WHAT PROFESSOR LACHS SAID, BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR . . . .” The wind surged gale force, snow lashing.
“DID YOU SAY IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY FOR AN ADVENTURE?! OR LIFE IS AN ADVENTURE?! HEY! DO YOU THINK IT’S EVER SNOWED LIKE THIS BEFORE ON ALL HALLOWS EVE?!” Brin asked.
“DO YOU THINK THAT STRANGE OLD MAN HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH THIS?!” Thom yelled.
“I DON’T KNOW! MAYBE HE’S A SORCERER AFTER ALL!” The winds paused once more, the snow whirling in the wavering light. Brin bolted, a gazelle bounding through the snowy mounds into the wind-drifted alley. Thom doggedly followed, cursing loudly.
A snowdevil sprang forth, unleashing its fury. Brin dropped to his knees. Hunkered low, he waited for it to pass. The icy whirlwind’s howl grew deafening as it descended upon him. The white tornado lashed and clawed , then with a mighty yank, it seized his cloak. The draw string tightened like a garrote, choking him.
Brin’s hands shot to his throat, cold fingers scrabbling for the cord. It was too deeply embedded. He gasped but drew no air. Spots danced before his eyes.
“HOLD ON!” Thom drew his foil, then cut the cord and cloak.
Brin sucked in sweet, precious air. “Thank God!” The white tornado snagged the cloak from his grasp, then blew past Thom and kept going. “You can have it!”
Snow plastering his dark hair and mousy mustache, Thom appeared confused. “THAT WAS STRANGE!”
“COME ON!” Brin hopped to his feet and ran around the drifts in the alley.
“YOU REALLY THINK SOMETHING’S WRONG?” Thom yelled after him.
In the courtyard at the eye of the storm, the winds lessened and visibility improved. The fountain, trees and benches were blanketed by the snow, but appeared to twist and writhe in the eldritch glow. The witchy light flickered across the redstone walls, arched doorways and snow-plastered windows. In the middle of the yard, Brin could make out the silhouettes of three horses frozen while rearing. Barely discernible beyond the fountain and its statues, the lean bllue-eyed young man found the origin of the disturbing light.
Huffing and puffing, Thom caught up with him. “Brin what’s . . . Oh, my God! Your place . . . it’s on fire!”
Snaking from the second floor windows, ethereal flames of blue and green set sills afire and charred the walls. Black smoke billowed, the oily coils strangling the stone building.
A snowy blast ripped through the courtyard. An army of whirling snowdevils leapt from powdery drifts, creating blue-green tornadoes. The fire seemed to take heart, shattering windows as it belched a great gout of flame into the sky.
“GET HELP!” Brin darted past one snowdevil, then a second before reaching the stairs. He slipped, skidding on his backpack down into the entryway. The front door appeared undamaged. Brin carefully touched the door. It didn’t feel hot; but he had a bad feeling. He didn’t see anyone else or hear any alarms. His friends must be inside. Brin reached for the door knob.
A nearby window exploded, spitting glass and flames. Startled, he stepped back. He took a deep breath, then reached again. The door erupted, firing wooden shards. The blast blew Brin across the snowy courtyard. Like a discarded puppet, he landed near the frozen fountain.
Brin tried to scream; but the pain stole it from him. He felt shredded, raked raw and pulped. Eyes bared in shock, he saw a crimson veil of agony. I am dying, he realized. He’d been terribly wrong; he wasn’t destined for something greater. The snow’s embrace eased his pains, making it easy for him to slide deeper into numbness, then wonderful unconsciousness.
Like a guardian spirit, something seized him, dragging the young man back to consciousness. His neck, left arm and ribs radiated stabbing pains, setting off waves of agony. He gasped for breath, the sharpness of the air slashing. Embedded needles burned even more deeply.
He tried to recall something. Anything. Who was he? Brin . . . Brin who? Examining himself made him wonder if he’d been mauled by a horde of fiery tigers. His clothing and flesh were blackened, burned and slashed. His chest heaved paradoxically.
A low moan came from his right. A badly injured man lay buried in a nearby snowdrift. Noticing the skinny young man’s red-streaked aura, Brin knew he wasn’t dead yet; but he would be soon if he didn’t receive a healer’s attention.
Jumbled memories sprang free, flooding over Brin. Thom? Lane? Juliana?! What had happened to them? “I must’ve been ambushed!” He reached for his sword, finding an empty scabbard. Had he dropped Mageblade? Where?! Fighting through the stabbing blades and searing knives, Brin climbed to his feet. He gasped, then crumpled to his knees.
“Brin Williams Kheldon! RISE AND FIGHT! COME TO ME! I WILL AID YOU! WE ARE AS ONE!”
“Master Llando?” Seizing his pain and using it, Brin staggered to his feet. Everything flashed black. Stars streaked by as though the world’s seams parted. He stumbled several determined steps, then collapsed again.
Where was his sword?! When Master Llando had presented Mageblade, he’d said the magical sword possessed special powers. Might the blade heal him? Brin forced himself to rise a third time. Gasping and hunched, he grimly surveyed the snowy courtyard. Smoldering debris lay strewn about, the steaming trail narrowing as it neared the burning structure. A black cloud choked his redstone home, but failed to conceal the blue-green flames. From the ground and second floor windows, the witchy tendrils writhed skyward like a dragon exhaling.
The stench on the winds and the sight of the strange fire bore another memory. Gruenjaq’s fire! The Dark Lord’s demons were here! Had ambushed them! Where was his sword?!
The howling winds abruptly calmed, the snow gently falling. Along the steaming trail next to the top of the steps, a frost-covered sword stood askew in the snow. Wisps caressed the elegant silver quillons, rising to wrap around the black and silver-woven hilt. The steam kissed the diamond ball pommel, then faded away.
Brin lurched toward Mageblade, keeping his gaze locked on the sword. It seemed to be leaning out, straining to reach him. Did the diamond ball wink, encouraging him? Stumble! Stagger! Even crawl! Just get there! Grasp the Sword of Power!
With each step, his pain lessened. He no longer haltingly dragged his feet, trudging as though each leg weighed a ton. He wished he could summon the sword into his hand. Did it quiver? When he touched the sword, an energizing surge of wellness perfused through him.
“Thank you. Thank Maekir . . .” he finally breathed. He had dreamed of feeling this good and this powerful “. . . for bringing me this sword of power.” The crystalline blade thawed, revealing a line of dark engravings. The runes cavorted, celebrating the forthcoming battle.
“You’ll not take me back. I fight to my last breath!” someone cried over the roar of the conflagration. Thunder shook the air. The building rocked as an inner wall collapsed.
“Master Llando?” Brin gave the burning structure a quick, calculating look, then took several deep breaths.With a strange song—Burning Down the House—playing in his head, he plunged into the inferno. Around the sword the flames and smoke parted. Fiery tendrils of azure and emerald writhed and twisted as if the very air itself burned. Fire sprang from the carpet, leaving black streaks as paint bubbled and blistered. Along the ceiling, flames rippled and reveled.
The smoke abruptly returned, blacking out everything. Brin felt lost and trapped. Suffocating heat assailed him. His clothing smoldered and smoked. Mageblade frosted over. Coolness rushed up his arm, then covered him from head to foot in silver-banded armor. The air seemed cooler, so he inhaled carefully, then thankfully, sending a prayer to Maekir.
“We will eat you, Llando! Then travel to Elan and vomit for THE SORCERER SUPREME,” a gravelly voice yelled. Several creatures chortled harshly.
Brin closed his eyes, then quieted his mind. As he’d been trained, the young man focused on senses other than sight. Ahead at the end of the smoky hallway, he could hear and feel his enemies. Brin eased ahead. On his way, he tripped over something, then tumbled to his feet, Mageblade ready.
The danger still felt somewhere ahead. What had he tripped over? It felt like a body. He knelt, praying it wasn’t Lane or Juliana. Why couldn’t he put more to the names than just emotions? What did they look like?
Brin felt for a pulse. He was still alive. Gathering up the young man, Brin carried him outside. Lane wasn’t breathing! Brin gave his friend two quick breaths. Lane’s blackened body lurched, gasping for air. Sirens sounded in the distance.
A scream wailed from inside, followed by another crash. Llando! Brin raced down the steps, plunging back inside.
Just beyond where he’d found Lane, he tripped again. He reached down, wondering who this could be. It felt like a dog. Along with the spiked metal collar and chains, everything about the canine seemed perverted. A Hellhound?! What would the Dydokk’n be doing here?
Sword ready, Brin advanced toward the growling, bellowing and crashing. A crack of thunder jolted the building. Unearthly cries of pain filled the angry air. With a mighty groan, the ceiling buckled.
He lunged into the great room. Grunts, bellows, and harsh clashing sounded the nearness of a life and death struggle. If he could only see . . . .
A powerful wind rushed down the partially collapsed hallway. It pulled the enchanted flames and smoke away, out the back door. Brin was startled. These were demons from the Shadowlands. The Gruenjaqs were huge, far larger than a Grizzly bear, and a horrid composite of beasts. What made him think he’d seen them before? His memory seemed more a recollection of stories told long ago.
The Gruenjaqs’ demonic faces were reddish and boar-like with pudgy snouts and sabertooth canines. Above large black eyes, a twisted rhino horn ripped the ceiling. Half-animal and half-ogre, they wore mail of reddish hide with spikes running along their arms and shoulders. Below the first set of limbs, a second pair of arms ended in crab-like pincers. Like a fifth appendage, a forked tail writhed serpentine. Two sets of bat wings magically lifted them, letting them dart back and forth.
Four had swarmed Llando, trapping the mage in a corner. The elderly wizard leaned wearily against the bookcases, but remained diligent, keeping the demons at bay with a glowing staff engraved with elemental faces. Their eyes radiated a red-golden light. It flashed off the wizard’s silver rune-woven robe and distressed the demons.
“It Is too late to do anything now but DIE, wizard. FACE IT! The LAST DIMENSION DANCER BELONGS TO THE DARK LORD!” The garishly bejeweled duke of demons roared and celebrated, red eyes glowering from below a crowning tuft of white hair. Rings hung from its nose, ears and nipples, accenting the gold bracers adorning its arms and legs.
“I HUNGER, BLYRRACCKK! I WAIT NO LONGER! Crack OPEN his bones and we’ll eat!” Pincers and claws slashing, the tallest demon darted forward. Llando shoved the staff into the Nethraspawn. Lightning arced and crackled. The demon let out a hyena scream, then staggered backwards. The other demons laughed unmercifully.
The duke of demons, Blyrracckk, rubbed his stomach “ARE YOU TIRING, MAGE? YOU MAY REST IN MY BELLY.”
Lank gray hair hung across the wizard’s gaunt face, a mask lined with pain and desperation. His dark eyes were feverish, and his thin frame shook from exhaustion. Blood ran from an ear and his nose, filling his mustache and streaming into his beard.
Brin pushed aside his confusion and fear, then charged. He never finished his first step, frozen as if time were suspended. Too late, he noticed a presence behind him.
“THE SORCERER SUPREME warned us the wizard might find help,” a fifth demon chortled. “But you’re just a Short, puny mortal in a shell.” As the Gruenjaq neared Brin, its putrid odor grew pungent. He struggled to break free of the demon’s spell, pounding away with all his will; but he was still held, muscles locked.
The tallest demon hurled a burning lounger at the beleaguered sorcerer. When Llando parried, the chair erupted, slamming him into the bookcase. From Blyrracckk’s gaudy talons sprang six coruscating black beams. The writhing blackness deflected off Llando’s staff to strike the wall and ceiling. Burning shelves dropped like a hammer, driving Llando to the floor. His staff bounced loose, its eyes fading to darkness.
“TIME TO FEAST!” Howling and laughing, the Gruenjaqs converged on Llando.
Brin railed. He still couldn’t move. He feared he’d come to help Llando, only to die without even striking a blow. If only Mageblade dispelled paralysis. A tingling washed over Brin, releasing him. Freedom! Reversing Mageblade, he gutted the demon, then whirled to behead the Gruenjaq. His next strike split the back of the darkest Gruenjaq, shearing off a wing. The demon dropped the mage and whirled. Brin whipped the frost-blade upward, splitting it from crotch to jaw.
He’d . . . he’d just killed two demons. Had . . . had he ever killed before? He didn’t remember it feeling this way.
The room suddenly plunged to black. As though he had extremely heightened senses, Brin felt the blow coming, instinctively parrying. It hurled him crashing through a wall. When he slammed into the far wall of the next room, his blue eyes narrowed angrily. That shouldn’t have happened! Had he forgotten all his warrior’s training? Corwinn and Geddon would be furious. Angry, the neophyte warrior plunged sword first back through the smoldering gap. He collided with an oncoming demon, slicing through its shoulder and driving it back. With two quick crosscuts he finished the third demon.
Brin felt a cold chill lash about him. By spell, blind unreasoning terror seized him.
Thunder and lightning struck, catching the demons in the back. Blyrracckk screamed curses and whirled on Llando.
“Thank you, Master Llando!” Free of fear, Brin gracefully parried the other demon’s attacks. Sparks flew each time sword and claws clashed. He slipped two claws and lunged, stabbing its leg. When the demon collapsed forward, Brin swiped at its head and . . . missed. It was gone!
“They teleport!” Llando cried.
As if Brin had eyes in the back of his head, he felt the demon materialize. He slipped below its four slashing strikes, then reversed his blade, jamming the sword into its belly. He whirled, his sword beheading the crumpling demon, then he kicked the headless carcass into the bejeweled demon. Blyrracckk dropped Llando, then vanished.
Sensing the demon, Brin whirled as it appeared behind him. A cross blow at the demon’s boar-face removed a hastily raised forearm. The Gruenjaq parried his next slash, then it spat. Brin dodged the smoking spittle, stepping right into its tail’s grasp. The serpent yanked him forward. The young warrior deftly severed its tail, then tumbled backwards. Blyrracckk’s talons and pincers raked the carpet. “TO Nethra WITH YOU, SHORTLING!”
Brin sprang to his feet only to find the garishly clad, white-haired Gruenjaq gone, again. “Coward!”
“Beware!” Llando groaned.
Blyrracckk dropped from above, driving Brin to the floor. He twisted,
repositioning the sword and burying the blade into the duke’s side. The demon screamed, then vanished. When Blyrracckk reappeared, it shouted guttural words that left its mouth as fire, then gestured at him. He slammed into the ceiling, then fell to the floor.
“MEAT!” Blyrracckk pounced, slamming Brin’s face against the floor. Bright flashes exploded throughout his head.
“We do not die easily.” From his knees, Llando raised his staff, then voiced a word of power. Waves of bitter cold pulsed from the staff, engulfing the duke of demons. Blyrracckk struggled, shattering areas of the thickening ice, but the wintry onslaught was overwhelming. The duke of demon’s movements grew jerky, then finally ground to a halt.
Brin rose groggily, then struck, missing the demon. What?! He saw double. swinging again, this time he shattered Blyrracckk. The blue and green flames slowly faded from the house; yet, the building still burned, the conflagration growing.
Brin rushed to the ‘two’ Llandos’ side. Each mage’s mouth moved soundlessly, followed by a cough that brought voice. “You have worries other than me, my friend. I’m soon dead, and the followers of the Dark Lord come for us. Listen to me, Brin Williams, you are . . . the chosen one.” The Llandos coughed, spitting up blood. “Go to Elan! Save Wyn-Sauern! The Sword of Power will aid you.”
With a rumble, more of the ceiling collapsed. He huddled over the mage to protect him. Something in the kitchen exploded. As the ringing in Brin’s ears subsided, he heard the harsh baying of hounds. Run . . . Run Like Hell . . . .
“Listen to me, Brin!” Llando shouted, his voice cracking like a whip. “I’m not important! ” A wracking pain struck the mage, who gasped before continuing, “Your world needs you! Go to Elan! Save the last dimension dancer from Lord Searr! The sword is the key. Terrex . . . .”
“WhatintheHellareyoutalkingabout?” Brin had the strangest thought: do I really know this man?
“Take Ellus.” Llando shoved his ornate staff into Brin’s hands.
The clanking of chains and the scrabbling of claws fought through the roar of the inferno. Crimson eyes locking on the armored, red-blond youth,, the hounds of Nethra bared their black teeth, then attacked.
“Terrex will guide you. Feaw!” A dazzling amethyst light sprang from the mage’s ring, engulfing the newest wielder of the Sword of Power.