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The sun dropped behind the peaks.
The last rays of warmth touched the earth and only the rosy afterglow of the day remained. From the east, indigo darkness approached rapidly. The wind cut through the hills like a sharp-edged blade, as if spring were only a faintly remembered dream. Winter's ice still clung to shadow-protected pockets, ice that cracked loudly under the heels of heavy boots. Out of the evening's darkness three figures entered the firelight.
The old witch looked up, her dark eyes widening slightly at the sight of the three. She knew the figure on the left, the broad, mute warrior with the shaved head and single long scalp lock. He had come once before, seeking magic signs for strange rites. Though he was a powerful chieftain, she had sent him away, for his nature was evil, and while issues of good and evil seldom held any significance for the witch, there were limits even for her. Besides, she had little love for any moredhel, especially one who had cut out his own tongue as a sign of devotion to dark powers.
The mute warrior regarded her with the blue eyes unusual for one of his race. He was broader of shoulders than most, even for one of the mountain clans, who tended to be more powerful of arm and shoulder than their forest-dwelling cousins. The mute wore golden circle rings in his large, upswept ears, painful to affix, as the moredhel had no lobes. Upon each cheek were three scars, mystic symbols whose meaning was not lost upon the witch.
The mute made a sign to his companions, and the one to the far right seemed to nod. It was difficult to judge, for he was clothed in an all-concealing robe, with a deephood revealing no features. Both hands were hidden in voluminous sleeves that were kept together. As if speaking from a great distance, the cloaked figure said, "We seek a reading of signs." His voice was sibilant, almost a hiss, and there was a note of something alien in it. One hand appeared and the witch pulled away, for it was misshapen and scaled, as if the owner possessed talons covered with snakeskin. She then knew the creature for what it was: a priest of the Pantathian serpent people. Compared to the serpent people, the moredhel were held in high regard by the witch.
She turned her attention from the end figures and studied the one in the center. He stood a full head taller than the mute and was even more impressive in bulk. He slowly removed a bearskin robe, the bear's skull providing a helm for his own head, and cast it aside. The old witch gasped, for he was the most striking moredhel she had seen in her long life. He wore the heavy trousers, vest, and knee-high boots of the hill clans, and his chest was bare. His powerfully muscled body gleamed in the firelight, and he leaned forward to study the witch. His face was almost frightening in its near-perfect beauty. But what had caused her to gasp, more than his awesome appearance, was the sign upon his chest.
"Do you know me?" he asked the witch.
She nodded. "I know who you appear to be."
He leaned even farther forward, until his face was lit from below by the fire, revealing something in his nature. "I am who I appear to be," he whispered with a smile. She felt fear, for behind his handsome features, behind the benign smile, she saw the visage of evil, evil so pure it defied endurance. "We seek a reading of signs," he repeated, his voice the sound of ice-clear madness.
She chuckled. "Even one so mighty has limits?"
The handsome moredhel's smile slowly vanished. "One may not foretell one's own future."
Resigned to her own likely lot, she said, "I require silver."
The moredhel nodded. The mute dug a coin from out of his belt pouch and tossed it upon the floor before the witch. Without touching it, she prepared some ingredients in a stone cup. When the concoction was ready, she poured it upon the silver. A hissing came, both from the coin and from the serpent man. A green-scaled claw began to make signs, and the witch snapped, "None of that nonsense, snake. Your hot-land magic will only cant my reading."
The serpent man was restrained by a gentle touch and smile from the center figure, who nodded at the witch.
In croaking tones, her throat dry with fear, the witch said, "Say you then truly: What would you know?" She studied the hissing silver coin, covered now in bubbling green slime.
"Is it time? Shall I do now that which was ordained?"
A bright green flame sprang from the coin and danced. The witch followed its movement closely, her eyes seeing something within the flame none but she could divine. After a while she said, "The Bloodstones form the Cross of Fire. That which you are, you are. That which you are born to do . . . do!" The last word was a half-gasp.
Something in the witch's expression was unexpected, for the moredhel said, "What else, crone?"
"You stand not unopposed, for there is one who is your bane. You stand not alone, for behind you . . . I do not understand." Her voice was weak, faint.
"What?" The moredhel showed no smile this time.
"Something . . . something vast, something distant, something evil."
The moredhel paused to consider; turning to the serpent man, he spoke softly yet commandingly. "Go then, Cathos. Employ your arcane skills and discover where this seat of weakness lies. Give a name to our enemy. Find him."
The serpent man bowed awkwardly and shambled out of the cave. The moredhel turned to his mute companion and said, "Raise the standards, my general, and gather the loyal clans upon the plains of Isbandia, beneath the towers of Sar-Sargoth. Raise highest that standard I have chosen for my own, and let all know we begin that which was ordained. You shall be my battlemaster, Murad, and all shall know you stand highest among my servants. Glory and greatness now await.
"Then, when the mad snake has identified our quarry, lead forth the Black Slayers. Let those whose souls are mine serve us by seeking out our enemy. Find him! Destroy him! Go!"
The mute nodded once and left the cave. The moredhel with the sign on his chest faced the witch. "Then, human refuse, do you know what dark powers move?"
"Aye, messenger of destruction, I know. By the Dark lady, I know."
He laughed, a cold humorless sound. "I wear the sign," he said, pointing to the purple birthmark upon his chest, which seemed to glow angrily in the firelight. It was clear that his was no simple disfigurement but some sort of magic talisman, for it formed a perfect silhouette of a dragon in flight. He raised his finger, pointing upward. "I have the power." He made a circular motion with his upraised finger. "I am the foreordained. I am destiny."
The witch nodded, knowing death raced to embrace her. She suddenly mouthed a complex incantation, her hands moving furiously through the air. A gathering of power manifested itself in the cave and a strange keening filled the night. The warrior before her simply shook his head. She cast a spell at him, one that should have withered him where he stood. He remained, grinning at her evilly. "You seek to test me with your puny arts, seer?"
Seeing no effect, she slowly closed her eyes and sat erect, awaiting her fate. The moredhel pointed his finger at her and a silver shaft of light came forth, striking the witch. She shrieked in agony, then exploded into white-hot fire. For an instant her dark form writhed within the inferno, then the flames vanished.
The moredhel cast a quick glance at the ashes upon the floor, forming the outline of a body. With a deep laugh he gathered up his robe and left the cave.
Outside, his companions waited, holding his horse. Far below he could see the camp of his band, still small but destined to grow. He mounted and said, "To Sar-Sargoth!" With a jerk on the reins he spun his horse and led the mute and the serpent priest down the hillside.