It came under the moon, a heavy tread beneath star-dusted skies, passing like a shadow under the ice-sheathed trees as the winds howled, desperate and endless. It crossed over the gulfs of the dark that lay in the valleys and deep places, until it could look down from a high crag upon the hill where men had laid their final refuge.
It had been a valley blasted by the fall of a burning star, but now men had raised stones over the fire, and heaped up a great hill around it, and walls atop the hill, all of stone fitted and clean and smooth. Fires burned along the walls, and at the gate, and greatest of all was the fire hidden deep within, where the power that came from the sky lay burning with the fire unending. Long houses lay clustered inside the walls, huddled as against the cold, smoke rising from their chimneys to vanish in the cold air beneath the glow of the sky fire.
The beast came down from the hills, silent and murderous, giving no warning, making no sign. It did not come in terrible open war against the works of men; it moved in the dark, a part of the dark, and gnawed with hunger at the corners of the world. Huge, it still crept almost silent over the heavy snow and ice-rimed stone. It breathed out smoke, and steam, and its eyes glowed cold and pale in the shadows.
It came over the wall, unseen, keeping away from the flames, and no guard saw it, nor heard it pass. Some of them huddled deeper in their furs, closer to their fires, but they did not wonder at the chill. Only one man lay in the path of it, walking the wall, looking up to the bright moon. He saw something huge and shadowed, and then he died before he could make a sound. Blood steamed upon the stone, and the broken corpse fell crushed and bleeding.
The beast crept down into the darkness within the walls, and it moved like death in the fortress walls. Like a shadow it broke open wooden doors and fell on men and women while they slept. It caught them up in its claws and rent them apart, devoured the choicest pieces of them until blood drooled from its teeth and dripped upon the earth. It feasted on children, and left bloodied handprints upon the walls, greater than any man’s, and misshapen. A sign of fear.
It looked up at the high walls of the inner keep, and it smoldered with desire to rend and kill, but it yet feared the power of the flame. Soon, it knew, it would need fear nothing, but until that day, it stayed its hand. It was commanded to feed, and to grow, and so spread terror, until the time came when it would extinguish the fires of men forever.
It left only ruin behind it, shattered homes and savaged corpses. It slipped back over the stone wall and back into the dark, the trail of red vanishing in the snow and the rocks. The beast climbed up to a high place and looked down, smelling the smoke and the stink of men, and it howled a blast of fury and a promise of death, and men below woke at the sound and shuddered in the night.
Druan came down from the high tower in the weak light of day and looked upon the bloody ruin. Three houses had been broken into in the dark, while the moon was high, and nothing remained of those who lived inside but pieces. He looked at the splintered planks of the doors, the tattered flesh left behind, and he clenched his fists at his side.
He was older, now. Five long years since that day in the valley beside the fallen star. The years hung heavy on him, and he was not the boy he had been. He stood tall, but heavier now of shoulder and arm. His face was bearded and looked older than his years. Across his face the old scar lay like a weal, still red and vivid, his left eye blank and white and unseeing. He was chief here, now. He was lord of this place, and of other forts that lay at a distance. Other chiefs bowed to him for his protection, for no place lay closer to the source of all darkness than this one, the keep men called Ember.
He stood in his iron-plated armor with his wolfskin mantle, and he looked at the slain and tasted bitter anger. It had been quiet this year, with fewer attacks from the enemy, fewer hounds seen and fewer huntsman blaring horns in the dark. He had begun to believe that the tide was receding, that the dark ones found the sons of man no longer as easy to hunt as they had once been. Armed with the sacred fire that never died, they had driven the enemy deep into the hidden remoteness of his lair in the northland, and Druan had begun to imagine a great assault to find the heart of the evil, and burn it out.
Now this. He went into one of the long houses, ducking under the low doorway while his warriors waited uncertainly outside. They had all seen much death, seen the power of the dark, but never before anything quite like this. Never before had that fell power reached through the stone walls and come for the lives of men and women without sound or warning. This was a new thing.
Druan looked at the blood on the floor, spilled on the very edge of the firepit. He saw a white arm, bloodless and ripped away, fingers clutching at a scrap of cloth that had been the blanket of an infant. Blood was on the floor, drying black on the wooden walls, and then above that was the imprint of a hand. It was a hand far larger than that of any human, and misshapen in some way not easy to define. He knew it had been left deliberately, as a warning, as a mark.
He left the house of the dead and drew his iron sword, drove it into the earth just at the threshold. It would serve to keep the ghosts of the slain from harming others until their deaths could be avenged. They would not rest until their killer was slain, and he knew his people would fear their empty homes until it was done. He left his sword there, for he would not carry a blade of iron on this hunt.
Sultai was beside him, big and quiet and steady. Druan turned to him. “Assemble the riders. I want them to scour the woods and river bottoms around the keep. See all fires lit and every man sleeps with his sword close to hand. I leave you in command. I will hunt this new thing, and I will bring back its skin to hang from the walls.”
He went into the keep, up the stone steps built up over the broken earth years ago. He went through the hall where he and his warriors gathered and feasted and told tales as if they were not afraid. He went up into the rooms where he slept, where the few things he still kept from his younger days remained. The boy he had been always seemed very far from him now.
Ashra was here, the woman who shared his bed. She was a wise-woman, a keeper of the fire, and she bore the looping tattoos of fire on her skin, marking her as a chosen of Ajahe. She wore her dark hair in braided locks, and painted her eyes dark. She watched him when he entered, and she read what she wished on his face. She gathered her furs around her naked form, and she stood before the fire that was never allowed to fade. “The darkness has come and taken a price in blood,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “A new servant, a new enemy. It does not know to fear me, so I will teach it.” He took down his old bow, strung it with a quick motion and then took his quiver off a wooden peg and slung it on his shoulder. Twenty arrows would have to be enough. If they were not, he had three arrows that would do the work. He took them from the pot of sand where the heads were embedded, and they glowed in the darkness of the stone-walled chamber. Three shards of the star, gathered from the black earth and fixed to arrow shafts. They never cooled, and over time the sinews burned away, but they would last long enough.
He poured some sand into a small bag, put the arrowheads in, and tied it tight. That would hold them for a while, keep the leather from burning away. He wedged the bag in the quiver and then he turned to the corner of the room. Ashra nodded and moved aside so he could pass, to where a heavy stone lay beside the fire. She drew the bear hide from it, and he ran his hands over the carved stone, then lifted the lid reverently. It had been hollowed out within, made into a kind of sarcophagus, but it did not hold the dead, it held fire.
Within lay the red ember blade of the shard of the star. Jagged and deadly, it was a sword not shaped by the hand of man, but by the Goddess herself. On the end he had fixed a hilt of stone, and now he took the leathers and wrapped them around the grip. Thus contained, it was cool enough to handle, though it was still hot to the touch. He was accustomed to it, and his hand no longer felt the heat, but his scar flared with new pain whenever he touched it.
There was no sheath that would bear the star blade, so they wrapped it in hides and he carried it that way, even as the bundle already began to smoke. The sword was always carried this way, for there was no way to contain its power for very long.
“You should seek the blessing of the fire,” she said. “Come below, with me, and we will call on Ajahe to consecrate you.”
“No,” he said. “I will hunt the beast. I will put the souls of the slain to rest, and only then I will go before the fire and give thanks. I will not go to the Goddess with empty hands. I will praise her name with the black blood of winter, and nothing less.” He drew her close, and kissed her. “Wait for me.”
They went out into the eternal twilight, five hunters and Druan, their chief. Arun was with him, leading the hounds. The dogs smelled the blood and they shook their heads and bared their teeth, eager for the kill. They were well-trained beasts, and they knew no fear. The trail was easy to find, and they saw the blood tracked in the snow, leading them away from the hard-edged fields and into the forest, where the boughs lay heavy over the shadow places beneath them. They saw the blood smeared on the tree bark, and churned into the snow beneath the tread of heavy feet. Beyond that, the blood vanished amidst the rocks and roots.
They came down from their horses and led them, under the heavy trees, as the dogs followed the black scent of their prey. Druan was not fool enough to think it hid from them. He knew it was a thing of hate, brought forth by the dark power that hid in the northlands, where the ice-river flowed through the mountains. It was bred to kill, and it would stalk them. He carried the sword of fire, and his bow ready in his hand. It would come to kill him, and then it would die. He had faced one of the abominations of winter once before, and he could do it again.
The ghost of daylight faded, and they hunted through cold dark. The trail led north, into the valleys and hills once called home, now the haunts of the enemy, uninhabited by men. They passed through narrow vales where the burnt bones of houses and tumbled stones of walls jutted through the snow, marking where families had lived and died. They saw bones hung in the trees, and they knew better than to disturb them, for the enemy used them to mark where human hands had passed.
The dogs followed the scent up the steep sides of a hill, in among huge rocks that made a nest of shelters and caves, and there the trail died and left them searching. They spread out, seeking a sign, and Druan laid his smoking sword down in the snow and fitted a red-ember arrow to his bowstring, waiting. This was the perfect place to strike, and he felt it coming like an ache in his bones, a cold touch on his skin.
A horse screamed, and he heard the howling of man and of beast. The dogs wailed and snarled but drew away, and then Druan heard one of his men die as the rest gathered quickly, close and dark, huddled in the narrow maze of this place. Their torches glowed on their faces, afraid and with eyes like white stones. Only Druan did not feel fear, and he wondered at himself, at what he had become in the years of this war.
They gathered close, shoulder to shoulder against a heavy stone at their backs, spears clutched in shaking hands. In the dark the screaming stopped, and then there was a long silence. Druan closed his eyes, not trusting them. He listened, and he tasted the air for the bitter scent of blood. The thing might be silent, it might have no smell, but it had just killed, and the blood would betray it.
He sensed it a moment before it struck, and he opened his eyes as a huge black shadow came from the dark, clawed and with flaming eyes like shards of cold blue light. The men formed a wall of spears and torches, shouting, howling at it as it rose above them like a bear made of darkness. It struck at them, and the sweeps of its claws shattered their spears and snapped the heads away. The flare of the torches showed nothing, no reflection on that midnight form.
Druan drew his bow to his eye and fired a glowing-tipped arrow into that shadow, and the beast howled to the stars. It lunged in on them, shattering the knot of men and splashing blood across the snow and the stone. Druan fell back, drew his second fire arrow, and loosed it, driving the shard of star-fire deep into the black body.
It came for him, and one of his men was in the way, thrusting out his torch, slashing with his iron sword to keep it back. It gave him time to draw the third arrow, and as the night beast crushed the man down and tore him in half with its teeth, Druan fired the third arrow into the hulking shoulder. The thing roared in pain, and he saw one eye glaring at him, blue and bright and furious, and then it lurched away into the dark, moving swift as a wind, and it was gone.
He had left the Ember with five men, and now there were three. They gathered around the last two torches and lit new ones, and then they stood alone, wrapped in darkness, looking at one another. The snow was blooded and churned, and they all smelled the hot reek of death. Druan picked up the smoking bundle, and they watched as he untied the thongs and unrolled the smoldering hides to reveal the red jagged blade, ever glowing with unearthly heat.
“You two go back to the keep,” Druan said. “Tell them I will return soon, but there is no reason for you to follow me.” He looked at Arun. “You will come with me.” Arun nodded, and the other men left with a mix of shame and relief on their faces. They would ever feel proud to have been on this hunt, and they would carry with them a certain disappointment not to have seen it to the end. Druan knew if they followed, they would die.
Arun followed him as they began to track the beast on foot. The moon rose up over the silent landscape, bright as a silver day, or even brighter. The blood trail was black in the pale light. Druan held the sword hot in his hand and followed. He knew the shards of the star embedded in the flesh of the beast would not cease burning. They would torture it with pain, and no dark power of the north would extinguish that fire. Wounded, it would go to where it felt safe, and hide there.
They followed it, seeing black blood, smelling burnt flesh. It was not moving stealthily now, not hiding its trail. The path led them deep in the hollow forest, under snow-burdened hills, until they came to a reeking cave, black within and strewn with bones. Druan stopped Arun with one hand as he faced it. “Stay here. If I do not come back out, you must go and tell the story of my end.”
He held up the red sword, and he heard the roar of the beast within the cave, smelled it bloody and savage and hateful, and he went into the dark with the shard of a fallen star to light his way. He trod on broken bones of beasts and of men, and he swore to himself that even if he never emerged again into the light, he would see the beast dead before he fell.
It was black inside, and it smelled of blood and pain. The light of the ember sword cast his only light, and by it he saw the floor of the cavern was buried in bones. Whether man or beast, he could not be sure. It smelled of old death, and he wondered how long this thing had been here, devouring, hating, growing stronger and bolder, until it dared to take the lives of men, and now it would pay the price all beasts paid when they dared the same.
He saw the dark move, and then the two eyes blazed up with cold fire, and he saw it there in the blackness. It was vast and dreadful, like a wall made of night. It was like a bear, and like a man, and like a wolf. It was many things, and nothing. It bared black teeth and howled at him, and its breath was cold. He saw the arrows embedded in its black flesh, and he saw the smoke rising from the wounds, the shafts all but seared to ash, and he almost tasted the pain of the beast.
Druan did not pity the monster; it was not in him to pity his enemies. He lifted the red hot sword and roared his own battle cry, and then they came together there in the darkness, in blood. Druan flinched back from the terrible lashes of the black claws, ducked the blows that scourged the walls and gouged the stone itself. He waited for a moment to strike, and when the beast lurched too heavily it left an opening for his blade.
He smote at the extended arm, the red sword cleaving the flesh with a hiss like boiling meat. The beast howled and rushed upon him, trying to crush him against the wall, but he put both hands on the smoking hilt and drove his sword in deep even as the breath was ground from his chest, and his bones ached to break.
The thing howled and drew away, ghostly blue fire crawling up across the black fur. Druan hewed at the beast, unable to see what he struck, but feeling the blade bite at the cold flesh. The monster breathed out a cloud of frost and tried to smash him with its heavy head, knocking him back, scattering him in the bones. His leg flared with pain and he cried out. Black teeth came for him and he struck at them, felt the sword bite and burn.
Black blood painted him, and his leg would not hold his weight. The beast crushed against him, pawing for him in the dark, claws raking through the bones. He drove his sword into the huge body again and again. He saw an eye close to him, and he put it out in a splash of black ichor.
Moaning, the beast pulled itself away from him, began to drag itself into the dark, but he would not let it escape. He struggled after it, his leg refusing to hold him. He fell against the dark mass and drove his sword into it again and again, using both hands, stabbing with all his strength until he was spent, and the beast lay unmoving and still. Druan fell back and lay in the broken bones, his only warmth the heat from the sword of the burning star.
Slowly, in great pain, he dragged himself away from the corpse, and pulled himself across the floor of bone toward the cave mouth. He carried the red sword in his hand, though it burned him. It was the only light he had as he crawled out of the cave and back under the stars.
Arun was there, close beside him with a torch. “Is it dead?” he said, and Druan nodded, finding he had no words. The other man helped him clean the ichor from his face, pulled him up so he could lean back against a stone. His leg was agony, and he wondered if it would heal. He felt a hundred scratches and scrapes and bruises, and he knew he was hurt more than he could yet feel.
He did not try to stand. He stabbed the star blade into the earth and left it there, steaming in the cold air, the ichor burning from the glassine surface. “Take my sword,” he said. “Go into the cave, and cut off the beast’s head. We will drag it behind us, so all will know it is dead.”
“Will you live, my lord?” Arun said, and Druan almost smiled.
“I will live,” he said. “I have taken worse hurts in my life, and I will take more before I am done. I will limp, and look through one eye, but I will live.” He showed his teeth. “When we return I will send out a call to all who will listen. I will ignore the chiefs and the wise men. All who will follow me shall gather, and we shall follow the burning sword into the north.” He sighed. “The time has come to end this war, at last.”