Prologue

 

On the planet Mith Sul-Anroth

(Five Months Earlier)

      

Darkness enveloped the priest as he sat cross legged on the bare stone floor, a floor as bare as he himself, for what he faced he would face just as he’d entered the world; naked. The room in which he sat was bare as well. Large, cold and devoid of light except for a single hole drilled through the granite slab that served as a roof. A hole no larger than the third finger on one of his two left hands. Dim light shown down from a dawn that was not yet fully born and the priest stared up at it. Unblinking. Waiting. Just as he had since the mid of night. As he would until the sun reached its zenith and stabbed a fiery finger into his forehead for a single though interminable instant. An instant of vision and foretelling. The priest, known by his people as the True Leader, did not feel the cold of the floor as it crept through his skin, nor the cramping of muscles long unmoved. His body screamed the need of water. Both to quench his thirst and to purge his system of waste. Yet these were worldly concerns and of no consequence. For the True Leader had lost his god.

Riding low in the sky and visible by day or night, Dracoolus was the eye of god that saw and watched over them all. The one constant in an otherwise chaotic world, and never had it wavered in all the histories told by all of the True Leaders who’d gone before.

 Until two nights ago. It was then that god’s eye flared an angry blue, flashing his displeasure down upon the True Leader and his people. Many voices screamed in dismay, and more than one pale body lay crumpled and broken beneath the Caves of Life, having thrown themselves from the precipice in despair. Then Dracoolus had blinked furiously many times before closing tight his eye. In an instant, the light of god was gone.

Yes, worldly matters would be of little significance for the priest until he brought Dracoolus back. Found what had displeased the deity and righted that great wrong. He sat the floor in a trance. Waiting. Outside the stone building his people gathered in their multitude, waiting in hushed silence lest they disturb the vision, each watching the heavens for the return. No cloud marred the sky and no breeze stirred the dust, the silence a pall that seemed to dim even the sun which climbed painfully slow towards its zenith.  

The change in the chamber was not subtle. One moment the priest was statue still, the next, writhing and screaming in agony upon the stone. Spittle streaming from his mouth and urine splattering uncontrolled across the chamber. The single beam of light had tracked across his forehead then struck his right eye, releasing the trance and bringing the real world back into focus. The pain was excruciating, and it was the pain that brought the revelation to life.

The Hall of Visions was built like the lodge of a beaver, and when the priest emerged it was head first through a small hole, appearing as if from the birth canal. He stood on shaky legs staring up at the heavens and the unseen hole where Dracoolus should be, seeing nothing but light green sky. He did not remove his gaze as he sent his mental command directly to the brain of every being kneeling in the valley. The True Leader received his revelation, though as a result of simple deprivation or true divine intervention, no one would ever know. Nor would it matter. He pointed across the mountains which lay purple and jagged in the distance, the granite towers erupting from the plain like rotten teeth bursting through putrefied gums. Every being there nodded in agreement, and with that order, the Army of the Chalgu began to move.

 

   

Chapter 1

 

(The Present!)

 

 

 

 

Fire in the stone hearth crackled and popped, the glow throwing contented shadows about the darkened room. Bookshelves overflowing with well known friends stood as silent sentinels, and the smell of fresh split pine and a hint of wood smoke perfumed the air. The man sits in a well worn and ratted recliner, dressed in his most comfortable evening attire, allowing one of those friends to paint images of far places and incredible adventure on the vast canvas of his minds eye. No other illumination casts its glow over the room as he prefers to read by natural light alone.

Outside his window a storm rages. The tempest combining with the careful staging of the room to reflect the story and lend a touch of suspense. Lightening flashes and thunder rumbles, rattling the panes of glass in competition with sleet and wind, but these sounds were distant and barely heard over the cries of fog bound sailors echoing from the black script that flows before his eyes. So real the weaving of the words that the smell of brine and the damp cold of clinging fog cause him to shiver.

A broken spar slaps the water as the ship bobs and rolls slowly in the swells, her shifting weight creaking her storm weakened timbers. The sound a physical groan from the disabled vessel, as if she too hears the distant waves crashing against a reef. Hidden stone daggers that would tear out her heart and plunge her terrified crew into the abyss of icy dark. Suddenly, the roar of a foghorn sounds on the wind, and the faint stab of light from a tower on the headland pierces the gloom, giving the promise and illusion of safety. If only her rudder had not sheared! If only her sails were not hanging in tattered ruins, shredded in the violence of a winter storm. The sailors have stood a chance then. Instead, the waves and current would have their way. Bent and broken, the captain could only watch and pray as his one true love was pulled mercilessly toward her death. Her proud belly bared to the mercy of the rock. Only one chance could stay the butcher’s hand, one desperate chance…  He turned the page.

Concentration momentarily broken, a new sound impinged upon his consciousness. The crash of waves receded as the storm outside grew, and within the storm, the cry and yell of sailors was replaced by a distant scream. Hideous, full of pain and very real! A sound drifting on the wind, compelling in its need and so familiar. The hackles on the back of his neck dance as the scream echoes briefly then dies away. Staring hard at the glass, the scream sounds again, this time closer, yet shredded by the wind. Fear and dread freeze him to his seat, eyes wide, staring at the window with certain trepidation.

Sleet turning quickly to water ran in rivulets down the fire heated glaze. Outside, momentary flashes of lightening create a strobe of the darkness, silhouetting the limbs of the old oak tree in the yard. Wind whipping the barren sticks gave the appearance of so many grasping fingers, reaching and pawing.

He heard another cry, different and closer. This one not of pain, but of the hunt and its ultimate success. A cry he’d heard before in another life, familiar and terrifying. Yet the true memory of it proves elusive. Outside the tempest rages on, building itself to a climatic pitch even as the scream of terror and the cry of the hunt sound once more, almost as in union. Whatever they were, they were in the yard outside his den. This is where the hunt would end and still he was rooted to his chair.

By shear force of will he drives himself to move despite the fear that invades the room like the thickening fog in his now forgotten tome. His movement comes in slow motion, moving as if fighting a great and invisible current. Yet need compels him! Outside someone was in great and dire need. He feels their desperation. Their primordial fear.

Overcoming the forces that hold him he stirs, the book in his lap ignored, falling to the stone floor, cracking its spine and spilling a hundred pages across the floor. He rises on leaden legs, and just as stands erect a face is pressed, cheek and ear, outside against the pane of glass. Staring in horror, a silent cry escapes him. It is a familiar face that slaps the glass, and it slowly distorts as pressure pushes it against the windowpane. Raven hair, stringy and wet frame her face, her terror driven tears competing with the rivulets. Wide eyes look inward, beseeching him, and still he’s rooted. Now fully paralyzed!

He stares, not able even to tremble or shake as a hand slowly snakes around her neck. The movement languid as if from a loving caress. Thin fingers, long and tipped in black nails, curved and sharpened to pointed claws score the ivory skin, drawing lines of bright red. Her eyes widen further. Suddenly, a visage rears into view. Hideous and alien! Huge eyes glow from under a hood of rotting skins, glittering as they stare in at him with certain and knowing alien intelligence. The scene is a physical blow, and his gorge rises along with an elemental wail inside his head.

Rebecca! he screams, reaching for her. The gleam in the alien's eyes intensify, and a mouth bristling with sharp yellowed teeth yawns wide, moving relentlessly toward the unprotected throat. Stricken, he watches as the woman he loves mouths his name, pleading silently for him to save her, Mac!