The pale light from the waning moon cast itself about me as a cloak. Yet still I dared not cease running, ever running from what was behind. My course was erratic as I sped my way through the lightly wooded vales of my youth, which never more would conjure up the feelings of innocence and security as they once did.
About me the conifers gradually began to give way to more deciduous trees. As a child I had spent many hours playing in these broad-leafed trees, climbing, pretending. As I ran, tears came to my eyes and flowed unheeded down my cheeks. I felt as if all my childhood had been stolen from me in one hateful night; that now I had had my eyes opened to what was in the rest of the world beyond these simple, wooded valleys.
As the trees changed, so did the undergrowth. Here and there briars had taken hold, and I was forced to swerve to avoid their wicked thorns, devilishly designed to rip and tear at the skin of a passer-by. Behind me I heard no sound of pursuit, but I dared not stop lest my ears be deceiving me.
To my right I began to hear a faint babbling sound - the old Govner's Brook. I was dimly aware that this was a boundary marker: it meant I had reached the edge of the wilds and was almost at the safety of the village. This recognition caused me to slow to a walking pace for I was not yet ready to face the accusing stares of the villagers - of people I had grown up with.
Somewhere afar off a screech owl howled and I started. How could I return to those innocent ones? Might I not be creating more danger for them? That was something I could not allow to happen. Still in my mind's eye I could see the Journeyman, his eyes bulging out of his sockets. I could still vaguely hear his voice, barely above a hoarse whisper, telling me to save myself. But I have seen already too much. Not even the ministrations of a priest can exorcise from my mind what I have seen.
In desperation I began to walk over to the old stone pit where once men had quarried the granite to build the town of Amber Bay, and even the great city of Toran, so far to the Southeast. Once great and prosperous, our village was just too far off the major roads. Other towns began to serve Sommerlund with fine quality stone. People moved away, expertise was lost and we degenerated to nothing more than bumpkins, living off the land, caring nought for knowledge aside from crop planting.
I had always desired strongly to escape from this constricting environment. I dared the wrath of my father and read books, taught by my kindly aunt, who had a library hidden away under her cottage. When she died, I was allowed to move into her lodging, and I continued my reading in earnest, saddened by the loss of such a dear loved one. Of course, I kept well hidden my learning, and showed only a select few such books of inoffensive lore as I might dare to.
It was one warm, summer's night that I stumbled upon the book, obviously hidden away from all but the most persistent prying eyes. It was bound in leather as black as night, and its cover was held by a large metal lock, intricately cast in brass, depicting strange demoniac faces, writhing and contorting as if singing in some unholy choir. Of the key to this lock there was no sign, nor was there any indication of where it might be.
For several hours I tried without success to open the clasp and peer into the lore, so well hidden for so long. At last I cast the book away from me, crying in exasperation that I might not ever see the delightful wonders of what was held inside. I slept that night down in the cellar, with my books - my friends.
As the summer began to turn to autumn, I cast all thoughts of the book from my mind and threw myself heartily into the reaping, threshing and re-sowing that eats up most of my time. How I yearned to be elsewhere; anywhere! As a child I had pestered my father that I might be taken to Toran to become a mage's apprentice, but each time he scolded me, and sometimes he would beat me for entertaining such selfish thoughts. "Your place is here," he would chide me.
Thus it was unexpected when, one foggy day in late winter, a stranger came to us asking shelter. He was a journeyman from Toran, sent out into the wilds to offer help to all that required it. His only price was a meal and a bed for the night. Well, the elder men of our village were none to happy that such a divisive influence come to our reclusive settlement, and they would have ordered him away if they had been sure no others would come. Finally it was decided that he should stay for a while, see that there was nothing he, or any other unwanted visitor, could do for us, and then be politely, yet firmly, moved on. I requested that he stay with me and, since no one else particularly wanted him here, it was agreed.
For a week I managed to keep the cellar hidden from him, but the sprightly old fellow was not without common sense, and one night I told him the whole tale of the village, of the distrust of learning and of the destruction of all but the most elementary books. He seemed genuinely shocked that such a thing could be happening in the picturesque area just a half-days journey from Amber Bay.
I showed him my treasure trove that I had inherited from my aunt. He was pleased that such lore was in safe hands and was about to retire for the night when fate wove its terrible curse around both of us; for he caught sight of the black-leather-bound tome, and began to question me of it.
I was sure that I had left it in its safe hiding-place, secreted away from all but the most thorough of searches, but there it lay upon my reading desk in all its ghastly splendour. The Journeyman approached it with slow caution. "What is this one?" he asked me, to which I replied that I could not open it to find out.
"The Brotherhood has knowledge to open such piffling locks," he assured me. He closed his eyes and began to chant something under his breath. As he did so, the lock began to glow, first blue and then white. Then, suddenly, the lock flicked open, dull brass once more. The Journeyman slowly reached out his had and opened the cover of the book. I peered over his shoulder, excited at what I might see; but disappointment grew within me as it became apparent that it was written in a strange, alien script of which I had no knowledge how to read.
Bitter tears welled up inside me when the Journeyman gasped aloud. "The strange script of the Tadatizaga!" he exclaimed. "The forbidden knowledge of the Nadziranim." I knew not at the time anything about these strange 'dark wizards', but even the word filled me with uncontrollable dread.
When I prompted him, the Journeyman began to explain what I had for so long desired. The book was a tome of Nadziran lore, right-handed magic forbidden by the Brotherhood. The book was specifically concerned with a branch of the right-handed path known as Necromancy - the study of the dead. The Journeyman continued that such a find was of great significance; that perhaps the Nadziranim had once walked in the fertile land of Sommerlund before the coming of the Dark Lords. Such a find could change the whole understanding of the histories of Magnamund, he maintained.
Puzzled and disenchanted, I retired to bed. It seemed that I had only been asleep for a few moments when the Journeyman shook me once more into consciousness. He was asking me how the book had come into my aunt's possession. I replied grumpily that I did not know, that she had never spoken of it while alive. My comments elicited a grim smile from the Journeyman.
"If she would not tell you in life, she may tell you in death," he said. He told me to get dressed for a walk and meet him at the Guvnor's Bridge in ten minutes. I duly did so, and we set out through the haunting landscape, tinted silver by Ishir's loving caress. It was deathly cold, and I was wrapped in a bear pelt I had won from another villager in a game several months before.
We walked for the best part of an hour, through Gladescroft Spinney and into the woods proper, when we reached an abandoned mine, a throwback to when these mineral-rich woods once echoed with human voices and pickaxes. Here we stopped, and here the Journeyman retrieved the book from a bag. In the sky above there was not a single cloud to obscure the moon, and reading in such vivid light was easy.
The Journeyman began to read, strange, terrifying words, which I felt more than understood. A wind picked up around us and, I swear, the chill deepened. Then I saw her.
Standing at the entranceway to the mine was my aunt. Her arms were wide open to embrace me; yet she moved not from where she was standing. The Journeyman sank to his knees, the book fallen from his twitching fingers. He addressed my aunt in a frightened whisper to name herself. The image turned to him and gave her name in my aunt's voice. The Journeyman walked forward to her. Once again he addressed her, asking her from whence the book had come.
"Ah, the book," croaked my aunt. "My lovely book." The Journeyman asked again, but my aunt would say nothing to him. In desperation he called to me to ask her, which I duly did, being in the state of shock that I was. But still she wouldn't answer.
Finally, in anguish the Journeyman thrust out his hand to touch my aunt. With lightning reflexes my aunt caught his hand. "So you thought to dabble in the Right-hand path," said a voice, but not my aunt's. "Foolish Left-hander! You do not know what you are dealing with. Nor ever will you."
Then, the shape of my aunt transformed into a giant bulbous shape. From within there seemed to be a phosphorescent glow. Its shape was not stable, but it continually changed whenever you focused your sight on a part of it. This horrible, protoplasmic horror plucked the Journeyman from the ground and held him aloft in triumph, squeezing ever tighter with limb-like protuberances. It gave a terrifying ululating cry of triumph - and I ran.
That is the story of why I am walking over to the stone pit, of why I cannot face my family, my friends. I do not know whether the evil is unleashed permanently, or merely for a few hours, but I have to get away from here. I cannot stay, for whatever it is may be following, and I dare not face that thing again.
For, while the huge mass of the creature was in a constant state of flux, its features remained the same. For it had a human face . . .
The world of Magnamund, its characters, history, and geography © Joe Dever 1984-present
Lone Wolf is a Trademark held by Joe Dever