The Mordant spoke not a word. He made no gestures and cast no spells. He merely stepped onto the gateway and the gargoyles awoke. Muscles rippling beneath granite, the gargoyles reared on their pillars, shrieking an unearthly wail. Wings unfurled and talons extended as the great stone beasts strained against their bonds. Twelve massive gargoyles towered overhead, each one a twisted nightmare of beaks and snouts, fangs and claws. Cast in stone and affixed to pillars, yet they moved. Infused with an unholy magic, they writhed in torment, clawing at the sky.
Trapped within his prison, Bryce felt their suffering as if it was his own. So much pain, so much torment, their shrieks flayed his soul, the damned calling to the damned. He saw them in his mind’s eye. Stone wings beating against the sky, the great beasts struggling to take flight, but they remained fixed to their pillars, their souls forever trapped in granite sepulchers. Perhaps it was his healer’s sensitivity, a blessing turned curse, but whatever the reason, their cries shattered his sanity, foretelling his own doom.
Bryce screamed but he had no mouth. Just a soul trapped within the Mordant, condemned to a living hell. *Release them! Set their souls free! Can’t you feel their agony? Feel their madness?* He railed against the cruelty of his own existence, cursing the abomination that claimed his face…his body…his mind…but his struggles made no difference, a paper moth beating against a thousand years of evil. Bryce howled against his fate. *I’ll not be trapped for centuries! I’ll not be a thing possessed.*
*Monk, you amuse me.* Like a demon summoned from the netherworld, the Mordant’s suffocating presence surrounded him.
Stunned to silence, Bryce made himself small, a mouse trying to hide.
*So you sense the truth of my gargoyles, the souls of the damned trapped within stone. You have more value than I thought.*
Bryce shuddered under the Mordant’s scrutiny, desperate to hide a single secret.
*Scream all you want, but like the gargoyles, you shall never escape.* The Mordant prodded his prisoner with a lance of pain. *It is past time you willingly gave yourself to the Dark.*
*Never! I walk in the Light!*
*I grow weary of your feeble chant.* The Mordant’s voice battered Bryce like a hand swatting a fly. *Soon you will feel the true power of the Dark Lord. Then you will know there is but one god worth serving.*
The Mordant withdrew, the walls of the prison slamming down. Bryce shivered with relief. The gray void was a cruel hell but the Mordant’s scrutiny was worse.
Battered and bruised, Bryce curled into a ball. He could still feel the gargoyles, feel their soul-searing pain, but there was nothing he could do. Struggling for composure, he strove to keep his wits, needing to protect his one secret. The unexpected boon had come early in his captivity. To escape the monastery, the Mordant was forced to traverse the Guardian Mist. In the depths of the enchanted cloud, unbeknownst to the Mordant, the Guardian spoke directly to Bryce. Appearing as a star knight, with a winged helm and a face etched with wisdom, the Guardian whispered words of an ancient prophecy. And with the words came a gift, a pinprick of light, a spy hole onto the world. The gift gave Bryce a narrow glimpse of life, a way of eavesdropping on the Mordant, but it was a sterile view, without smell, or touch, or taste, yet the keyhole kept him sane.
At first, he tried to escape, after all, what shape did a soul have? Making himself tiny, he tried to slip through the eye of the needle…but he could not pass, as if a wall of mage-glass blocked the hole. Mind and will battered the barrier, a rage of purpose, all to no avail. Failure pushed him toward madness, till he recalled the words of the Guardian. Consoled by prophecy and the teachings of the monastery, he nursed his sanity, waiting for a chance to betray a thousand year old evil.
*Come, monk, I desire a witness.*
Startled, Bryce stilled his thoughts, burying his secret.
*The gargoyles herald my return to power. Come and behold the first Trials of Return.*
Pulled by the will of his jailor, Bryce rose from his prison to stare through the eyes of the Mordant. A rush of sensations overwhelmed him, a tidal wave of all that was lost. A breeze brushed his face, carrying the first bite of winter. Exposed to scent and touch, Bryce reveled in the wind’s caress, swooning at the smell of sunlight striking the grasslands. Denied all sensations, he drank in every detail, wallowing in the sheer delight of the living world…but then the shrieks of the gargoyles intruded, their pain slashing at his soul, a reminder of his grim purpose. Embracing the pain, Bryce fought the ecstasy, forcing himself to think, to concentrate, to understand the enemy.
The Mordant stood beneath the rearing gargoyles, in the center of a short paved roadway that pierced the long gray wall. Bryce knew the wall divided the north from the south, marking the start of the Mordant’s domain, but beyond the gargoyle gate, he saw nothing but golden grassland, the endless steppes stretching away to the north.
*My soldiers come, summoned by the screams of the damned.*
A patrol of horsemen galloped toward the gate. Clad in black armor laced with gold, a bristle of spears against the sky, they rode in disciplined ranks. A dozen great hounds raced in front. A pack of hunters seeking prey, the hounds howled for the kill.
*Do you understand the risks? Clad in the maroon cloak and silver surcoat of the enemy, I wear a face none in my kingdom has ever seen.*
Bryce trembled with hope.
Bryce knew it was a taunt, but he answered anyway. *Stand!*
The Mordant laughed, *I thought you would see it my way.*
Such an odd comment, but Bryce ignored his jailor. Staring through the Mordant’s eyes, he watched the cavalcade gallop close. Two hundred strong, the soldiers leveled their lances and charged, a swath of death hurling toward the intruder. Transfixed with hope, Bryce willed them to come, praying for death, praying for release.
A thunderstorm of hooves converged on the gate. A dozen hounds led the riders, baying for the kill. Details became clear. Sunlight glinted on armor, gold pentacles on black breastplates, stern faces beneath dark helms. The surging line bore down on the gate, the horses’ hooves churning up clods of grass. The leveled spears gleamed wicked keen, a promise of death, a promise of release.
Bryce watched them come, urging them on.
Somewhere behind him, the unmade knight gave warning, “They’re not going to stop!”
A mere mortal would have run, but the Mordant stood his ground, his feet spread wide, his maroon cloak flaring in the breeze.
Sir Raymond screamed, “Run!”
But it was too late to run. The horsemen loomed large, a charging wall of spears. A horn sounded a sharp note. Riders hauled on their reins. Warhorses snorted and stamped, fighting their bits. The horsemen came to sudden stop, a thicket of spears bristling just beyond the gate.
Dazed, Bryce stared at the gleaming spear tips. So close…yet they’d stopped short. He reeled in disbelief, snatched from the brink of death.
The Mordant’s voice boomed in his mind. *Behold the proof of my past! The shadow of fear cast by my last lifetime still holds sway.*
Bryce refused to listen. Fevered with desperation, he prayed to the Lords of Light, begging the gods to rouse the soldiers to a killing fury. Straining against his bonds, he fought to make a threatening gesture, to provoke bloodshed, but all he could do was watch, a prisoner trapped in his own body.
The soldiers stayed on their horses, a row of hostile faces staring down at him, silent and wary and full of judgment. Snarling against their chains, the hounds sniffed the air, slaver dripping from their jaws.
Something about the hounds snagged Bryce’s attention.
From a distance, they looked like large, shaggy wolves, a motley of tan and black, but up close, they radiated wrongness. And then he got a good look at them. Like beasts sprung from the depths of hell, the hounds proved a living horror, a corrupted nightmare of jumbled features, the snout of a wolf, the curved teeth of a saber-cat, the yellow eyes of an eagle…and something more, something twisted lurked deep inside. The twisted wrongness called to Bryce, compelling him to understand. He stared at the cruel yellow eyes…and something stared back…a fierce intelligence pulsing with hatred…the twisted souls of men!
The Mordant’s laughter ripped through his mind. *You have a gift for sensing souls. These are my gore hounds, the perfect hunting beasts, a triumph of my last lifetime.*
*Abominations! A crime against life!*
*Spare me your feeble judgments. To gain power you must be willing to wield it. Something your Order has long forgot.”
The hounds erupted in a frenzy of howls. Fighting their chains, they snapped and snarled, as if trying to flee. Whips cracked as their handlers hurled oaths at the beasts, urging the hounds toward the intruder, all to no avail.
The Mordant stepped toward the hounds.
Their howls changed to a cringing whine, as if they’d caught the scent of something they feared.
The Mordant spoke a single command. “Sabolanth.”
The hounds fell silent. Slinking low, their bellies scraping the ground in submission, they bowed before the Mordant.
Bryce shivered in his prison, realizing the twisted hounds knew their maker.
A ripple of unease ran through the soldiers. More than one made a strange hand sign.
Overhead, the gargoyles screamed a warning, writhing against their bonds.
An officer dismounted, a gold plume on his helmet signaling his rank. A black-robed priest joined him, a gold pentacle on a chain around his neck. The officer advanced with his sword drawn.
Bryce watched him come, a glimmer of hope in his heart.
The officer reached the shadow of the nearest gargoyle and stepped onto the stone roadway.
Silence fell like an executioner’s axe. The gargoyles froze, cut off in mid-shriek. Beaks and talons stilled, they stood mute as statues. Their sudden silence seemed ominous, like an ill omen. Bryce shivered in his prison, knowing he witnessed the power of dark magic.
The officer and the priest closed the distance, stopping within a sword thrust of the Mordant. The priest, a sallow-skinned man with a curled mustache, began hurling questions at the Mordant. “Who are you? A deserter? A turn-cloak? A spy? An assassin? What brings a cursed knight of the octagon to the Gargoyle Gates?”
The Mordant held his silence.
“Answer the questions!” The priest sputtered, his face turning red. “Who are you? Why does a knight of the octagon wait here?”
“I’ve come for the Trials of Return.”
The priest blanched, retreating a step.
The officer stood his ground, the point of his sword leveled at the Mordant’s heart.
The Mordant ignored the threat, raising his voice loud enough for the soldiers to hear. “The first three conditions of the Trials of Return have been met. I wait alone beneath the screaming gargoyles. I have endured the charge of spears. And the gore hounds fall silent at my command. My actions prove my claim.”
The officer nodded. “Put him to the question.”
The priest made a curt gesture.
A pair of soldiers approached carrying a small ironbound chest. Setting the chest before the priest, they flicked wary glances at the Mordant, and then retreated to their horses.
The priest tugged on the chain around his neck, revealing a large skeleton key. “Once the chest is opened, your fate is bound to the secrets inside.”
The priest cursed. “So be it.” He knelt, inserting the key in the lock. Muttering a prayer, he opened the chest, revealing a scroll nestled in black velvet. Lifting the scroll, he held it toward the officer. The commander fingered the wax seals, as if checking their integrity, and then returned the scroll to the priest. “All is correct.”
The priest broke the seals and read, “The gargoyles announce a single claimant to the Ebony Throne. The spears charge, answering the summons of the gargoyles, yet you refuse to run. The gore hounds scent a kill, yet you quell them with a single command. You have endured the first three trials, but your fate is now tied to the questions of this scroll. Knowledge from the past is the key to the future. A single wrong word and your life is forfeit, for no imposter shall ever gain the Ebony Throne.” The priest lowered the scroll and glared, as if his stare would wilt the claimant. “Do you understand?”
“Ask your questions.”
Bryce watched, praying for a mistake.
The priest read the first question. “What shape does Death take?”
The Mordant spread his arms wide. “Death comes in the shape of an enemy, in the maroon cloak and silver surcoat of the Octagon knights.”
The priest nodded, a sour look on his face. “The gargoyles herald the return of a conqueror. What have you conquered?”
*Do you understand, monk?* The Mordant’s voice whispered through the gray void. *The trial of words offers no riddles, no clues to be puzzled out, just a series of simple questions with a thousand different answers, a thousand ways for an imposter to find death.*
Bryce shuddered, his last hope crushed by the Mordant’s certainty. *You wrote the questions…and the answers.*
*Of course, signed and sealed before each of my deaths.* The Mordant spoke aloud, his voice pitched to reach the waiting soldiers. “I conquer death with each new lifetime.”
The priest checked the scroll, growing pale with each correct answer. “Who made the Gargoyle Gates?”
“Ten dead wizards buried beneath their last creation.”
Sweat beaded on the priest’s brow. “What do you claim?”
“I am the Mordant re-born.”
“What are you owed?”
The Mordant smiled. “Your allegiance.”
The priest blanched, his hand gripping the amulet at his neck. “What do you demand?”
“An escort to the Dark Citadel where I can finish the Trials and prove my claim to the Ebony Throne.”
“Or die trying.”
The Mordant completed the ritual. “Or die trying.”
The priest gave a cautious half-bow and then turned to address the ranks. “The stranger has passed the initial Trials of Return. By the Darkness he is named a claimant to the Ebony Throne.” He traced a rune through the air as if granting a blessing. “Behold the na-Mordant!”
Two hundred fists thumped against steel breastplates. “The na-Mordant!”
The storm of cheers rained like acid on Bryce’s soul. He screamed inside his prison, railing against the Mordant’s victory.
The officer sheathed his sword and saluted the Mordant. “Centurion Caylex, leader of the third border guard, at your command. My troops will see you safe to the Dark Citadel. I’ll have a mount brought up for you.” He glanced toward the unmade knight. “I assume your servant will ride the pale mare.”
The Mordant raised a hand, forestalling the commander. “My plans cannot wait till my ascension. I claim the na-Mordant’s boon.”
The centurion gripped his sword hilt, his questioning gaze sliding to the black-robed priest. The priest stared wide-eyed, clearly forced beyond the comfort of his authority. “B-but surely this boon can wait till the high priests prove your claim?”
“Check your scrolls, priest. It is within my rights as na-Mordant to claim a single boon.”
The priest hesitated, caught between risk and ritual.
Huddled in his prison, Bryce felt waves of Darkness lap around him.
“Look into my eyes, priest. Dare to meet my gaze.” The Mordant’s voice was a silken command. “Find the truth behind my stare.”
The priest gasped a strangled sound. Felled to his knees, his face turned chalk-white, sweat beading his brow. Cringing, the priest raised his hands in supplication, shielding his eyes. “He’s the one, the Mordant Returned!” Lurching to his feet, the priest grabbed the centurion’s arm, panic written across his face. “By the Darkness, grant his boon!”
The Mordant’s voice carried a sarcastic twist. “My first believer. I’ll remember you, Tavros, priest of the border guards.”
The priest quaked. “I n-never said my n-name.”
“Darkness knows you, priest. Your soul shouts its secrets to me, the least of which is your name.”
Trembling, the priest bowed low and backed away, clutching his amulet as if a mere metal trinket could save him.
The Mordant turned to the centurion, his words a command. “Cragnoth Keep is held by men loyal to the north. They wear maroon cloaks but serve the Darkness. Trask is their leader, an axe-wielding knight turned mercenary.” He gestured to the ranks of spears. “Take two thirds of your men and ride hard for the keep. Relieve Trask and secure the stronghold against the Octagon.”
“But your escort?”
“The true Mordant needs no escort.”
The centurion saluted, his fist striking against his breastplate. “As you command.”
The Mordant smiled. “And one more thing. Trask and his men were promised golds for their betrayal. Payment will be delivered once I ascend to the Ebony Throne. Make sure Trask lives. I have plans for the traitor-knight.” He made his voice a command. “Ride hard and claim the keep for Darkness, securing a gateway into the south.”
The centurion saluted, snapping orders to his men.
A soldier brought forth a black stallion. Another soldier knelt by the stirrup. The Mordant stepped on the soldier’s back, mounting the stallion. Taking the reins, he turned the horse with a flourish. Raising his fist in triumph, the Mordant addressed the troops. “To the men of the third border guard, I give the honor of striking the first blow! Loose the gore hounds and bring war to the kingdoms of Erdhe!”
A cheer rose from the soldiers. Spears clattered against shields, horses stamped and snorted, and above it all, the gore hounds howled, the fearsome din of war.
In his prison, the monk wept for a chance lost, for a world teetering on the brink of war. He prayed to all the gods for a way to kill the Mordant, a way to kill himself, but his prayers went unanswered. Sick at heart, Bryce slumped in his prison, betrayed by the impotence of the gods.
The Mordant put spurs to the stallion, crossing the gate and galloping into the north. *Do you feel it, monk? Do you feel the gathering glory? I ride to claim a throne and all the power of the north, while you whimper in the dark, praying to a pack of useless gods.*
Bryce cringed, hiding in the corner of his prison.
*You’re a stubborn one, monk, but your gods will never answer. My rebirth is the ultimate proof of the Dark Lord’s bounty. Forget the Lords of Light and spend your prayers on a god who answers.* The Mordant’s voice boomed through the gray void, a relentless goad. *What do you pray for, monk?*
Bryce swallowed his thoughts and shrank to insignificance, a moth hiding in the dark.
Darkness pressed around him like a threatening hand. *I was…* His voice faltered, snuffed by fear.
*Come now, monk, your thoughts are mine to rape.*
Bryce quaked in terror, knowing silence would be his undoing. *I was…* he forced the words out, *…praying for a chance to kill you.*
Mocking laughter rolled through the darkness. *Of course you were.* The Mordant’s laughter intensified, beating against him, coming from all sides, like waves of acid. *But you will never get the chance. For you are a gift from the Dark Lord, mine to use or abuse, to reward or punish, my pet, my tamed monk, my servant for all eternity.* Darkness tightened around him, a fist holding him tight. *But keep dreaming of murder…of sweet revenge…and soon you shall be one with the Dark.*
The hand released him. The laughter receded. The darkness faded to gray.
Once more alone, Bryce curled into a ball. He stayed small and insignificant, afraid to move, afraid to think. But a single thought crept into his mind, what if the Mordant was right?