The armies gathered under black skies lit by stars and phantom fire. All across the northland riders passed, bearing with them undying flame, and every place where men dwelled behind walls against the night they brought the word that Druan called them to war. In a hundred walled forts and sequestered vales men took down their spears and axes, belted on their swords and donned their armor. Riders passed through the dark, knots of flame moving in the deep cold, as the warriors gathered, riding to the fortress called Ember.
They gathered there in hundreds, and then thousands. They found safety in their very numbers, tents and shelters covering the ground. Horses coursed in hundreds, forged flamed without ceasing, and the smell of smoke from a thousand fires filled the air. It was the greatest gathering of men that any of them had ever seen. On the third day, the gates of Ember opened, and Druan himself came forth.
Most of them had never seen him before, only heard the stories, and they struggled to see what they could. He rode a black horse and wore a helm set with antlers and a mantle of wolf hides. When he drew off his helm they saw his face, the flesh marked by the vivid white scar and blind left eye.
Above the great gate hung the skull of the moon beast, dragged back from the wilderness and displayed for all to see. It had been a year since he slew the beast, and the ravens had long ago picked the dark bones clean. It had taken time for the war lord to recover from his wounds, and even now he walked with a heavy limp.
He held up the sword of the burning star, and men looked on it and howled their war cries. That was the sword sent down from the sky, from the hand of the Goddess to wield against their enemies. With that sword Druan had cut down the creatures of darkness, had slain their moon beast, and now he gathered them for a last attack. Once before they had ridden to war against the enemies of their race, and they had been defeated and driven from their old lands. Now they would go to war again, and this time the fires of Ajahe would not be prevented. The warriors howled and beat swords and spears upon their shields, raising up a great shout to the blackened sky.
Druan descended into the depths of the keep. He walked the secret way allowed only to a few. He and the men who had been with him that first day were permitted here, and the women who served the Goddess as her handmaidens. The hill raised up for the base of the keep was hollow at the center, and here lay the fiery stone sent from the outer darkness.
He stepped through the narrow tunnel, and out into burning light. The floor was only blackened earth, and the walls were dark with the smoke of years. The chamber was not large, and at the edges he could touch the roof with his fingers. At the center it rose higher, and there the stone lay where it had fallen. No hand was permitted to move it, and it lay dark and glowing from within, indeed like an ember. Over the surface flames crawled slow and red, never dying, never cooling.
Ashra was here, with the other women close to hand. Naked, she bowed before the stone, and with her hands she gathered up the small shards of burning that broke away from the star. These pieces were kept in a stone bowl, and they were taken away with great ceremony and made into the hearts of torches and watch-fires. This was a fire that the power of the dark could not extinguish, and it was worth more than any treasure.
This was a great gathering, and Ashra plucked up the small fragments with her hands, the tips callused and red from so many burns. She lifted the bowl, heat shimmering the air above it, and she brought it to him. “We will carry fire into the night,” she said. “Every battle in your life has led you to this one. You are the chosen of Ajahe. To you was given the fire of the Goddess, the light to drive back the dark.”
“I took it, it was not given,” he said. “I came and fought and bled to win this.” He touched the scar on his face, the sightless white eye marked by fire. “Now we will go to war and avenge the fallen, the taken and the slain. We will exterminate the men of the dark, and undo what has been done.”
“I will,” he said. He went to the star and stood as close to it as he could, the heat baking against him. Over these years it had never faded, never ceased to burn. It was the weapon they needed, and now it would undo their great loss. He touched it with his gloved hand, just a small touch so that the leather blackened and smoked. He did not have the will of the priestesses, to touch and be burned every day. So close, the scar on his face flared and stung him, and he bowed his head. This was the mark and the burden placed upon him.
He turned, limping heavily on his bad leg, wishing he were back in the saddle. On foot he hobbled like an old man, but on a horse he was still a great warrior. He went forth to his army, and Ashra followed behind him, bearing the shards of fire in her hands.
The army moved in the dark like a coiling serpent lit with a thousand points of fire. Each man bore a torch, and every twentieth man bore a torch that carried a shard of the burning star as the core, so it could not be extinguished. These men were the best that could be found, the bravest and fiercest, and they rode with terrible pride, and more terrible purpose. They had been beaten down by fear, hunted by enemies, seen friends and family slain; now they marched for revenge.
The army wound through the valleys and passes like a burning serpent, and Druan led them ever northward under the sky fires as they twisted above them among the bright stars. He had riders and hunting hounds out on his flanks, to guard against scouts or ambushes. He would not be taken by surprise, not this time.
They rode through the valley where he was born, and he saw there was nothing left but the burnt remnants of the long houses, and the crumbled ruin of the stone wall. He paused there for a moment, and then he turned and looked at Ashra, who ride close beside him. “Here,” he said. “When I am dead, build a mound of stones for me, and let this be my resting place. I was born in this vale, I would rest here when my labors are finished.”
They pressed on through the starlit dark, until he saw the aged bones hung in the branches of the trees, and he knew they were near to the end of their march. They trod on ancient skulls, and the horses shied from the strange smell of the place. Druan spurred forward and drew his burning sword, held it up as they reached the stone gate that men named the Pass of Bones.
It yawned before him, as dark and forbidding as it had been on another day, when he was a younger man. The cliffs reached up to the dark sky, like hands raised to ward men away from this place, and he bared his teeth. This was a world of men, and he would not see his people denied any single place upon the face of it. He looked into the dark, and he wondered if the enemy was gathered as before, if they were prepared to strike. He seemed to feel them, to sense their cold presence pressing upon them, watching from the night.
Hesitation would buy nothing, and so he beckoned his riders and they formed behind him, drawing down their masked helms, drawing swords and axes ready to hand. Each man bore in his shield-hand a torch lit by a shard of star fire, and those flames would not be extinguished. There were seven hundred of them in his vanguard, and they formed a wedge of iron at his back. Druan held up the burning sword and the drums beat the war call, and ten thousand voices lifted to shout their blood hunger, and then he charged.
The horses bellowed as they rushed forward, beneath the cliffs, and Druan felt his heart speed as they drew so close to where the old battle had been joined. He looked ahead, waiting for the enemy, and then they were in the pass, thundering through the dark, lighting the way with the divine fire. Druan felt the cliffs closing on over them, as if they rode down a tunnel into the darkness, and then they were free again, under the burning night sky.
This forbidden valley was empty and silent, the snow and the trees undisturbed by the works of man. Northward there was a glow, and he saw there the legendary wall that marked the end of the river of ice that flowed down from the uttermost edge of the world. It simmered there like a blue flame, watchful as a cold eye. The darkness moved, and Druan saw the enemy.
His riders spread out into a wider front, and they blew their horns to summon the rest of the army, as the forces of the night gathered against them. Upon the hills and the unprinted snow they drew up in a shadowy mass. Riders on their unliving steeds, cold-eyed and breathing freezing smoke, waited in a great horde with jagged spears and helms that hid their pale faces. Hounds gibbered and slavered on the hillsides, crouched like beasts in the snow, snapping at the heels of their horned masters. And in places Druan saw the dread hulks of the giants such as he had faced before, pallid and misshapen.
He never slowed, and his war-horse, trained from birth to hunger for battle and hate, bellowed with eagerness and tore the earth with his sharp hooves. His riders surged around him, brandishing their torches and their iron swords and spears, gleaming with the light of the sky fires overhead. Druan saw now that the sky fires were an emanation of the ice wall, and he hated that phantom light as he had never done before.
The enemy surged forward, and as one they let loose a roar of hunger and hatred that blasted across the landscape and churned the snow like a wind. The cold power washed over them, and men hunkered behind their shields and their horses screamed and plunged, but the charge did not stop, and the torch fires did not go out. The power of the dark could not extinguish the fire from the sky.
Druan gripped his shield in his left hand, and the sword of embers burned in his right, searing through the stone and leathers, and he drove his men into the mass of his enemy on the heels of a scream of war. The enemy hounds rushed toward them and were met by the savage war-dogs of his people in their hide armor and iron collars. The two lines came together in a mass of tearing and screaming, and then the horsemen crushed through and struck the lines of the foe like an iron hammer.
Again Druan heard the clangor of battle, the ringing of sword and axe on shield and iron helm, the clatter of spear hafts as they battered against each other, the screams of horses and of men. At once he was engulfed in the foe like a dark tide, and in his right hand the star sword swept down like a burning brand.
There was no skein of strength held back in this test of wills, for the men were filled with a holy desire to purge their enemies from the earth, and the darkness ever yearned to exterminate mankind, so there was no thought of retreat or of mercy. Spears reaped a deadly harvest, and the horses rode over the enemy and crushed them underfoot. The charge of riders smashed the enemy line and fire struck down upon the creatures of the night.
The foot soldiers began to arrive, rushing to the flanks, and arrows thick with burning pitch began to scythe across the enemy lines. Before they could flank the charge of horsemen they were cut down in a storm of fire and steel, and the hounds and huntsmen melted away. The light of burning bodies lit the dark, and gave the men a fire to see by.
The whole hillside seethed with battle, and this time, no breath of cold could extinguish the fires. Frozen giants crushed through the lesser servitors and smashed men down with their terrible strength. Burning arrows studded their pallid bodies, and they went down rent and pierced by dozens of blades and spearpoints.
Druan cut his way through the enemy, the red sword unstoppable, cleaving cold flesh and leaving a trail of burning dead behind him. Bones snapped beneath the hooves of his war steed, and it savaged the enemy with its teeth like a wolf rather than a horse. A giant loomed over him, and he drove for it hard, crashed against it with the full weight of his mount and made it stagger. His sword cut in great sweeps, spilling black blood that burned, and he hewed off one great arm before he was dashed from the saddle.
He came up in the churned snow, enemy warriors closing in around him, and he saw the great leg of the giant and he hacked at it, cut through the cords and sent it hurtling to the ground, smashing its companions beneath its bulk. The night horses clawed at him and he cut them down, sent them staggering away with ruined skulls and burning skin.
His horse was there, bloodied and relentless, and he caught the harness and pulled himself into the saddle again. The dark warriors rushed in on him, but he smote them great blows with his burning sword and splintered their dark armor, sent them screaming back. Spears broke against his shield and swords rang on his helm, but he fought like a beast himself, consumed with the hatred of his foes, burning and growing inside him for years and now let loose.
He smashed their blank-eyed faces, split their pale flesh and left their bodies burning in his wake. Nothing slowed him, no wound stayed him, and at last, as he reached the crest of the hill, they broke. He pushed through the last of them, and they fled before his fire. His riders howled and rushed in his wake, cutting the enemy down as they fled. They stained the snow black with the blood of the dark, drove them into the trees and hacked them to pieces.
The remnants of them fled, scattered and broken, and Druan rode after them. His arm was like iron, aching and stiff, his hand burning with the heat of the sword, but he would not stop, and he struck again and again at any enemy that came within his reach. They fled down the back of the hill, through the scattered trees, toward the blue radiance of the glacier. That fell glow drew them closer, and Druan looked at it, feeling the cold eating into his flesh at he came nearer to it.
All the long years he had wondered if there was a king of these dark creatures, if there was a single mind that mastered them and sent them forth; now he drew near, and he felt fear for the first time. Something lived there in the unearthly light of that wall of ice, and he would see it, at last. He did not wish to go, and even as he drew near it, his horse stumbled and shuddered. The cold was too much, and the heat of the sword could not protect it.
Druan dismounted, and even as his warriors tried to join him they were held back by the terrible cold, the frigid power like teeth in the night. He waved them back, and he held the sword of fire before him, shielding himself from the cold that came on him like a curse. His crippled leg pained him, but he ground his teeth and forced his way through the snow, limping heavily but never stopping.
The cold grew more intense, and he could see now the power of the sword like a halo around him, mist forming in the air where the cold met the radiating heat. The sword glowed brighter, fire dancing on the edge. The snow melted beneath him and then froze again when he passed. He came down the final hill, and before him rose the wall of ice, glowing from within as though lit by another sun, and within the deep blue ice was something dark, something vast.
The minions of the night gathered at the edges of the fire and stalked him, afraid to come closer. They hissed and clawed at the earth and shrank back from the fire of the star sword, and at last he stood before the wall of ice at the end of all, and he looked on the form trapped inside of it, the origin of all the evils he had known in his life.
It was hidden in the ice, a shadow larger than any giant, and at the edge of the wall some part of it was broken through. He saw white flesh, like the skin of a corpse, and a single eye that gazed out on the darkness, unseeing. From that eye a dark trail led down, trickling over the ice, until it gathered at the base of the wall, black against the snow, and there it formed a pool, and that pool was filled with bones.
He saw the bones of men and of beasts, their flesh eaten away, their bones etched with what looked like some strange glyphs. Even as he looked, the black fluid roiled, and heaved, and more of the white-fleshed hounds crawled from it like worms birthed in decaying flesh. They cried like newborns and clawed at the air, and Druan felt his guts turn in loathing. He came forward, the sword held up.
The new hounds slunk away from him, gibbering and crying out, and he plunged the burning sword into the black pool. It hissed like boiling blood, and then a foul smoke rose up from it. Blue fire danced upon the surface, and then the black poison began to burn.
Fire spread across the surface in a wave, and the pale, once-human creatures caught in it screamed and clawed to get free of the flames that clung to them. The sword hissed and shuddered, but the fire could not be extinguished, and soon the pool was boiling and burning away, making a pillar of black smoke that choked Druan and made his eyes stream with tears that froze on his skin.
He held the sword there as long as he could, and then he fell back, coughing, staying close to the sword lest the terrible cold crush him. The ground beneath him shook and trembled, and cracks raced across the great blue wall of ice. He wondered if the thing in the glacier would rise and break loose, but it did not move. Even that single eye did not shift or stir at all. The fire crawled up from the pool, along the black rivulet, and then the eye itself began to blacken and smoke.
A great howling rose from the creatures where they cringed in the darkness, and then masses of them came rushing for him, desperate and ravening with their final convulsion of rage. Claws scourged the snow, and a circle of the enemy close in on him. Druan found a rock to set his back against, and he raised the burning sword high, bright against the blackness.
There, under the cloud of smoke, he met his foes in battle one last time. The red sword cut through pale flesh, sent them back shrieking and burning. The air smoked and hissed as the black power of the cold hurtled against him again and again, and yet nothing would dim the fire of the ember shard. Their cold, dark swords splintered against the red one, and though they wounded him with innumerable small hurts, he would not give way. He slew them until they lay in a burning, writhing ring around him, and then the remains of them broke and fled.
The earth shuddered again, and he turned back to the wall of ice and the thing entombed within it. The pool of blackness had burned down to a hollow charred and dry and smoking, and he saw the burned bodies there that had lain beneath it. How many years? Since the first creature fell into that pool and became something else, became a slave to the slumbering will of that dread creature where it lay, dreaming, or dead. How many had been brought here and forced screaming into that pit of venom?
He crushed bones underfoot as he crossed the burnt pit of death, and then he looked into the blackened, smoking eye of the thing. It did not move, it did not stir, but he would be certain. With both hands, the flesh raw from the great heat, he drove the star sword into the eye like a red-hot nail.
It pierced the flesh, and hissed and blackened. Fire crawled over the eye, and he thought perhaps it saw him in that moment, but then black ichor splashed out and ran over his gloves, stained his furs, and it struck his face and seared him like hot iron. He spat it out and felt the burns upon his tongue, but he would not draw back his blade. He drove it deeper, and then drew it across, and fire plunged in with it.
He ripped the sword free and fell back, feeling his skin burning as though it were stripping away from his face. The earth shuddered again, and he looked up and saw the ice cracking. He stumbled away from the thing, grinding his teeth in pain. His old wound in his leg slowed him, but he struggled on. He heard great sounds, like breaking stone, and he looked up.
Above him, the cliff of deep winter ice was fracturing apart. There was a glow inside, but it was an angry, red glow. Fire was inside, consuming the thing trapped in the ice, and the ice was breaking. Druan struggled to get away from the glacier, half-blind and in pain. He was wounded in a dozen places, and he knew he was losing blood, even if he could not feel it.
There was a last, great sound, as if the very sky were breaking. The earth convulsed under his feet and he fell, looked up and saw the top of the wall of ice, like a crested wave long held suspended, collapse and slide down in a cascade that shattered and glimmered like jewels as it fell. It fell in and buried the dark thing, and then the impact sent a wave of ice shards slashing outward like knives. Druan covered his face and felt the pieces strike him, and then the blast of air flipped him over and buried him in the snow, and he clung to the sword with desperate strength even as he was buried, and faded from awareness, into the dark.
They found him, after. He was pale with cold, scarred and bloodied, but Ashra led them and they gathered him up on a wolf skin and carried him away from the ruin of his enemies. She herself bore away the red sword of fire, holding it up before him as they took him back to the fortress of the Ember.
He lived, though it was many days before he would wake, or could speak. The wound on his leg was worse, and he never walked again without a staff. His face was scarred by the black blood, and he covered it with a mask made of bronze, save for his blind eye, which glowed with a cold light in the darkness. His hands were ever stiff from the burning, and he never used them without pain. He grew taller, as if he here a giant out of old tales, and he sat on his throne like a brooding titan.
They made him more than a man; they made him a god, or like one. More people came, gathered by the story of his war against the dark. The creatures of the cold fled, and the sky fires no more foretold blood, and killing. Only a few of the night things remained to haunt the darkness, and when men found them, they slew them. The fires of the star never failed, and they lit the darkness for many years.
And then Druan looked upon his domains, and he was not satisfied. He cast his eye far away, across the mountains to the south, where there were warm lands and days of bright sun. Where men did not have to hunt and grub for their food, where there was wealth, and ease, and beautiful things, all of which might be taken, with iron in hand. And so he brooded on his carved throne, and armies gathered and marched in the darkness of the long winter, and the world changed.