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Threetoe's Stories, and Analysis

Tales Foretold: Queens and Kings

By Threetoe

Darkness was just beginning its retreat in the face of the rising sun. Night creatures were settling into their dens as the birds and beasts of daylight woke and began to chatter. The old dwarf's feet were sore from walking the raised highway that wound its way through the darkened woods. It was possible, whilst alone on this stretch of road, to imagine that if he stepped off into the trees and disappeared into the wilderness he could escape his responsibilities and make a new life in the distant mountains where his kind once dwelt. But Durad had sworn an oath to protect the lives of the most vulnerable among the people of Slusia, and that was why he put one iron-shod foot in front of the other and kept to the road, adjusting the shoulder strap from which his sword was slung and straightening his cap, the one on which was pinned the shiny metal eagle that marked him as an officer of the law in the service of the local tyrant.

It was the duty of those not able to serve in the legion to walk the roads and trails in search of cowards on their way home, not willing to fight for the glory of King Esarhaddon. Like the rest of the wars fought between the self-appointed monarchs, Durad considered this a cruel waste, cutting the lives of young men and women short for no purpose whatsoever. It didn't matter to him which flag waved above the walls of the handful of towns that lay between the warring kingdoms.

The road stretched from the forest down into the plains of Slusia whose golden hills rolled off into the east. There he saw a group of three coming up the road. They were two women and a boy, barely of age. They were covered in dirt and spattered with dried blood. They had shed their uniforms, but one of the women still clutched a spear, tied with the ribbon of Esarhaddon's expeditionary force. Deserters. The women knew that the penalty for deserting was crucifixion and wouldn't be taken alive. They outnumbered him, but Durad wasn't looking for a fight. He just tipped his cap and went on his way. The boy looked after him and stared. He had never seen a dwarf before.

The rays of noonday sun fell on a great oak tree at a bend in the road as Durad passed by. He looked around the horizon at the fields of golden grass stretching off to the rolling hills in the distance. A large crow squawked in the branches above. Durad noticed a few of the crow's friends gathered around. There was something lying in a ditch by the side of the road. The crow croaked again. Durad stood and watched as all the birds turned to look at him and took to the air moments later. Only the large crow remained.

“What have you got there, old friend?” asked Durad.

Silently watching from the branches of the tree, the bird kept its eye on Durad as he stepped to the side of the road. Instead of the animal carcass Durad expected to see, there was the body of a man, face down in the dirt. The corpse was dressed in the uniform of a watchman like Durad, those who were too old or infirm to fight for Esarhaddon. This was a gray-haired man. Maybe it was just his time, thought Durad. Even those souls who have survived all the trials of the past age must eventually be collected unto Nadir to be forged anew. Then he reached down to turn the body over and take the dead watchman's face out of the mud.

As his hand fell to the hilt of his sword, Durad jumped away, nearly falling backward onto the road. There was a snake wrapped around the dead man's neck. Durad regrouped, drawing his sword. The dead watchman's gray locks fell to his shoulders. That's why Durad didn't see it at first. He reached down with the tip of his sword and lifted up the hair covering the corpse's neck. There it was, black and glistening. But no, it was no snake. There was a knot tied in the back. There was no question. This man had been killed by another.

“Help!” shouted Durad.

Hearing his cries the deserters had returned. After a tense few seconds, the one with the spear put her weapon against the tree and stepped down into the ditch to help Durad with the body. The others gathered around where Durad was kneeling. They had seen violent deaths before as slave soldiers of Esarhaddon, but this was different somehow. Durad asked them to help pull the body onto the road.

As the deserters pulled the body of the murdered watchman out of the ditch, its arm fell free revealing a tattoo on the shoulder. Durad recognized the mark immediately. This man was once one of the demon hunters known as the Beast Maimers. Durad knew this for he had once been one of their members, dedicated to the extermination of all demonic invaders.

Durad had the runaway soldiers lay the body down on the road so he could take a closer look at the glistening black rope. He lifted the head to examine the knot tied around the back of the neck. It was one of the kind that Durad had learned in the army of Esarhaddon. As soon as Durad touched the knot, the black rope came to life. The crowd took a collective leap backwards. Durad drew his sword and struck out in a swift motion. The black worm squirmed away just in time to avoid being sliced in half and disappeared into the grass.

“Holy Trigonometra,” gasped the woman, scrambling to reach her spear.

“Beyond the Shadows,” cried the other.

They were right of course. Dark magic was at work here, for dark magic was the only magic left. The boy just stared at Durad. He had probably heard stories that would have convinced him that murderous worms and dwarf watchmen were just as evil as the other. No one told the stories of the ages past and gone, when magicians and dwarves fought to keep the candle of life flickering and the darkness at bay. Now they were only reminders of the betrayal that sent the world into brutality and chaos. The deserters left him, wanting to have nothing to do with a murdered watchman and a cursed dwarf.

Alone again with the body, Durad weighed his options. The watchman had been a big one and the closest outpost was in Tasan, a league to the north in the Bandit Forest. Durad remembered passing a monastery where the monks were distributing food to the poor wretches orphaned by the endless conflict. He pulled the dead man's arms over his shoulders and began to walk. Hours later he came around a bend and the monastery appeared, a black stone building atop one of the golden hills. The brothers were nowhere to be seen, the orphans having long since disappeared with their scraps of food. Durad dragged the watchmen all the way to the oaken door and knocked three times.

The brother that answered the door was a middle-aged man who seemed overly excited to see a dwarf with bad news. He was wrapped in the black robes that marked him as one of the Order of Nadir, god of the underworld. Durad smiled as Nadir was the patron of dwarves. No wonder this man was thrilled to see him. He indicated the corpse at his iron-shod feet.

“We must return his body to my master in Tasan,” said Durad. “She will know what to do.”

A short while later, Durad was sitting at the front of a cart, pulled by a shaggy ox, the monk beside him holding the reins. His name was Buris and he had been just a boy when the Maimers had disbanded. He knew all the stories of their valor and heroics. It was a relief from the thinly veiled hatred that most people showed the dwarf, but the enthusiasm was too little and too late to do Durad much good.

“You said he was murdered by a black snake?” asked Brother Buris.

“A worm,” corrected Durad, “used in ligature strangulation.”

“Have you heard of Ormuro Magic?” asked Buris.

“I was a 'Maimer for twenty years,” said Durad, losing his patience. “All connections to the Realms of Magic have been severed, and all demon invaders hunted to extinction.”

“What if I told you that it is still possible to reach the Outer Darkness beyond our world?” said Buris. “I have been there!”

There was something young and naive about Buris's demeanor, despite his years. Still, there was an aura of mystery about these new orders of holy men. After all, the connection to the gods had been lost along with the rest. Nadir, Trigonometra, Apexus, they were all gone.

“There are shadow worlds still connected to this one,” said Buris. “Just as our order draws power from one of these spiritual realms, the killer is using magic from the opposite. It is magic of chaos so destructive, that if his kind are allowed to persist and the balance upturned, the Earth will sink into a sea of waste.”

“Wonderful,” said Durad, with a smile. “Just another reason to catch this maniac before he strikes again.”

-

Soon after they reached the gates of Tasan, where the golden hills once again gave way to the dark green forest. Durad nodded to the watchmen on guard and they opened the gate. They lowered their caps as the cart rolled by, though like Durad they didn't know the man. As the cart made its way through the densely crowded wooden buildings, the denizens of Tasan turned away. They knew better than to get involved with dwarves, or watchmen for that matter. When they reached the keep the guards took the body inside but turned Durad and Buris away. The sheriff was away, presiding over the execution of another deserter. They could come back tomorrow.

The light was fading and Durad took his leave of Buris and made his way to the Tasan watering hole. The tavern was filled with those too old or crippled to be of any use, drinking away what was left of their lives. Durad asked himself, why would the killer want to murder one of these poor wretches? He climbed onto a stool at an empty table next to a window and watched as a girl came running from the direction of the town gate. She burst into the tavern shouting.

"Esarhaddon has won a great victory!"

-

Flying the flag of Esarhaddon, the stone keep of Tasan dominated the sprawling wooden buildings of the town. In a chamber at the back of the meeting hall, a warrior sat on her carved rock throne. She was Annaca, sheriff of Tasan, a powerfully built woman, aged many hard years, and hung with chain armor across her muscular shoulders. She nodded to the young man who kneeled before her and took the scroll from his outstretched hand. Annaca squinted as she read the scroll.

It seemed that Esarhaddon had repulsed an attack by the army of Baron Astberg, favorite general of High Queen Sennacherib. Although the battle had been a great success, the call had come for reinforcements. Every able-bodied man and woman was to report to army headquarters at once. Tasan was already taxed of its people to the breaking point. It was all Annaca could do to hide the young people that were left from what amounted to mandatory suicide. Looking up from the scroll, Annaca saw the boy who had been patiently waiting. He was a handsome and bright young man, just the kind that Esarhaddon wanted for his meat grinder. He cleared his throat, with the look of excitement and fear on his face.

“What is it, Wabit?” snapped Annaca

“There is a dwarf here to see you,” exclaimed the young man.

The dark stained door opened and in walked the dwarf. She gave the slightest nod of her head of peppered gray hair as Durad entered. She too had been a demon hunter from the days of the apocalypse. There weren't too many of them left.

"Annaca, it has been too long," said Durad.

"Enough nonsense," said the sheriff. "Why aren't you off chasing frightened youngsters in the name of the king?"

"There's been a murder," said Durad.

Annaca looked him in the eye, clearly not amused.

"The killer is using Ormuro magic," said Durad.

Leading the sheriff from the keep, Durad walked to the tavern he had rested in the night before. It was still morning and the place was deserted. The dwarf watchman opened the door to the back room where special guests were entertained. There, laid out on a table, was the body. Buris stood near the head, dressed in his black robe resembling the spirit of death. Annaca stepped closer to examine the body. She did not know the man.

The monk invited her to take a closer look. Annaca noted the tattoo and the ligature marks around the throat. The monk gestured to the dead man's head. Durad set a stool next to the table and grimaced as he pried the corpse's jaw open. The monk waited as Annaca stepped forward to have a look. Inside the mouth there was no tongue. Her face turned purple as she looked back up at the monk. She knew what he was about to say.

“The murderer is sending us a warning from the Realm of Waste,” said Brother Buris.

“What fool would tamper with magic of this kind?” asked Annaca.

“It is time to condemn more,” said the monk, “and understand less.”

“This lunatic will end up killing himself summoning the wrong demon before long,” said Annaca. Then looking at the fallen watchman, she said, “I will have this loyal warrior given a hero's funeral.”

With that, the sheriff left the tavern. Durad and Buris stood in silence, over the dead watchman. A strange emotion played across the dwarf's face. This 'Maimer had gone out fighting a demon for the cause. As anger welled up in Durad's chest, he knew this maniac would strike again. The monk felt the same way. The Order of Nadir was sworn to the cause just as he was. Why the sheriff couldn't see this was a mystery to him.

The following day, Annaca was scrawling a report to the capital, explaining that no more young people could be spared for the upcoming assault. There was a frantic knock on the door. She had warned Wabit before about disturbing her. Though she would never really do it, she knew she could send the young man to the front at any moment. The knock came again. Annaca threw down her quill and stomped over to the door to find Wabit panting on the other side.

“There's been another murder!” he shouted.

“Great Moon,” cursed Annaca.

Outside the gate, the beauty that Annaca usually saw in the woods had changed to a haunting, bleakness of impending doom. She followed Wabit down the dirt road to a crowd that had gathered across the way from the monastery of Nadir. Durad was there, motioning them over to the side of the road. There, just like before, it was a body laying strangled in the ditch. It was a dwarf this time, clothed in the robes of a monk.

“I knew him from the old days,” said Durad. “He was a Beast Maimer and a Dulchari.”

There was a retching sound behind them. It was Wabit.

“Have a closer look,” said Annaca. “Didn't you tell me you wanted to be sheriff one day?”

Steeling himself for the sight, Wabit watched as Durad lifted up the dead dwarf's beard exposing the black worm wrapped around his neck. There had been many Ormuro demons released during the Second Nightmare Apocalypse, but like the others, these monsters had been hunted to extinction by the Beast Maimers. That they had returned was a cause for alarm. Annaca pointed out the knot to Wabit. The killer's calling card was a trap set for the watchman who discovered the body. Anyone who touched the worm would immediately sicken and die. (he was wearing a glove before?)**

Drawing out her sword, Annaca told the crowd to take a step back. She stretched out her arms and loosened them in preparation to strike. Sensing the tension, the worm pulled itself tighter around the dead dwarf's neck. Annaca gave it a little poke with the tip of her sword and the demon worm came to life. It launched into the air, thrashing from side to side. With an expert swing, Annaca sliced the worm in half. The thing instantly liquefied and splashed against the ground.

“The killer is escalating,” said Annaca. “Why kill a defenseless holy dwarf?”

Taking it on himself to give the monks the bad news, Durad made his way up to the monastery gate. Annaca had Wabit and another watchman place the body on a wooden board and follow Durad up the hill. The dwarf knocked on the wooden door with the three raps that identified him as a follower of the ancient code. Buris opened the door and beckoned Durad inside.

“Luslem was one of our greatest spiritualists,” said Buris.

Though the monk was fighting to hold back tears, still, there was something resilient and youthful in his eyes. Durad remembered that Luslem had the look too, when he was alive. Buris had told Durad the price these men paid for their insight and wisdom. They often spent years in an unbroken trance, projecting their spirits into Osoai. In that place, where lost souls swam, time passed quickly, so that during what seemed like an hour spent there, a year passed on Earth.

The watchman brought the body into the building, followed by Sheriff Annaca. The monks lifted their hands and made the sign of Trigonometra to speed their brother's journey into the next life. They didn't mourn the loss of he who led a celebrated life, but were instead concerned for rest of the people who were the targets of a homicidal madman.

“The magic of old has left us,” said Brother Buris. “It once protected us from chaos. Now all that's left are the twin shadow worlds of Osoai and Ormuro. The magic of the latter is too dangerous for its practitioners to be allowed to live.”

“He is after us,” Durad said to Annaca, ” and he won't stop until the demon hunters are wiped from the Earth. What demon he serves is not important. You must seek assistance from the capital. All that matters is that we end this.”

The next morning, Annaca was on the road to Assura, Wabit alongside. The golden hills rolled on to the horizon. It was several day's journey on foot, but every horse had long since been requisitioned for the war. It wasn't long before they overtook a caravan of the wounded and dying soldiers making its way back to the capital. The wagons stank of disease and the poor wretches walking alongside didn't look much better.

“If I can save just one,” whispered Annaca as she touched Wabit's arm, “it will be enough.”

Once they reached the river they knew that Assura wasn't far off. Annaca had been there once before, but Wabit had never been a half-league from the woods of Tasan. He looked visibly nervous as the enormous mud brick wall appeared from behind the hills. The watchmen that patrolled the highway saluted Annaca as she passed. It wasn't long before they reached the ancient city.

Passing under the gate of Assura, Wabit knew he was in the presence of greatness. Statues of winged lions stood atop the walls, daring the likes of Sennacherib to besiege the mightiest walls ever constructed since the dwarf fortresses of old. Inside the gate, the streets were flanked by stone buildings two and three stories tall. Wabit wondered that humankind had ever built anything as glorious. Then he saw the castle.

At the heart of the city was King Esarhaddon's citadel. Built between the rivers ages ago, it was one of the oldest structures in all of the Slusian Plains. Esarhaddon's grandfather was the first ruler to reclaim the fortress since Cenaster had been assassinated there centuries passed. The atmosphere of the haunted castle seemed to agree with the dynasty of kings that thrived and eventually struck out to create an empire. As Wabit followed Annaca past the armored pikemen, he couldn't see how Esarhaddon could possibly be defeated.

“Welcome, Sheriff,” said a young woman dressed in the tunic of a courtier. Annaca immediately noticed the jade eagle pinned to her collar, marking her as a royal inspector. Her superior.

“I'm Inspector Kushet. There is no need to salute. You are among friends here. Bear with me as we go through the necessary protocol.”

She showed Annaca and Wabit into the grand hall. There they were presented before Prince Mucer, Esarhaddon's son and ruler of Assura since the king had gone to lead his armies to victory against the powers of the south. The prince was perhaps one of the most hated royals to ever sit on the throne. His lechery and petty evil were legendary. Still, he was Annaca's only hope to get the royal inspectors assigned to the case.

“You look a little old to be a sheriff of the rear guard,” said the prince, eyeing Annaca with a repulsive grin.

“Excuse my appearance, my lord prince,” said Annaca, “but there is a killer on the loose. He is targeting members of the Dulchari Order known as the Beast Maimers.”

“I know who you are,” snarled the prince, fixing his eyes on her face. “You are that miserable sheriff from Tasan who won't send the crown his due. Why should I care about the lives of a handful of washed up magicians and demon hunters when men and women are dying by the thousands?”

“May I, your lordship?” asked Kushet.

Openly leering at her, the prince bent his ear to her as Kushet whispered something to him. Suddenly his affect changed. He looked distressed and ordered everyone to leave the room. Annaca and Wabit were guided outside by guardsmen while Mucer spoke urgently with the inspector. Wondering what Kushet could possibly have said to him, Wabit looked to Annaca, but she made a sign that told him to be silent. Minutes later, Inspector Kushet appeared.

“You will be happy to know that I have been assigned to your case.” said Kushet.

“Good,” said Annaca. “This killer is summoning Ormuro demons. Apexus knows what he'll do next.”

The next day the three of them were on the road toward Tasan. As they rode west, Wabit pulled up beside Annaca and asked her what happened to the prince.

“Some questions you should keep to yourself, unless you want your brains scrambled,” said Annaca with an urgent whisper.

-

Having convinced Brother Buris to join him in the tavern, Durad was drinking the day away when one of Annaca's favorite young woodsmen came to the door. There had been another murder. Durad pushed himself away from the table and went to question the young man. Buris went with him.

“I found him on the highway south,” said the woodcutter, “in the Bandit Forest.”

“Good boy,” said Durad. “Buris, follow me. With all this black magic, I might need some spiritual help.”

Light filtered through the bright springtime leaves as the woodsman led Durad and the monk south into the Bandit Forest. The woodsman pointed to the ditch on the side of the road where he had found the body. Something wasn't right. Durad's hand reached for the hilt of his sword. The others became silent. There was a cracking sound from the bushes behind them. Buris spun around just in time to catch a crossbow bolt in the chest. But instead of striking him, the bolt passed through empty space. Durad stared for a moment in surprise. Buris had vanished.

“Look there!” cried the wood cutter.

The young man pointed to the shadowy figure running away through the trees. Durad drew his sword and ran after him. It soon became clear that the pursuit was pointless. Durad wasn't familiar with this part of the woods and the shooter easily evaded him.

Breathing heavy, Durad trotted over to the ditch. It was a young man, perhaps another one that Annaca had saved from Esarhaddon, just to die at the hands of a deranged murderer. Suddenly Buris reappeared. Durad had seen a lot of strange things, but this magic was new to him. The monk looked visibly shaken. The wood cutter went to him and steadied him on his feet. Durad asked him what had happened. The monk just shook off the helping hands.

“I've seen him,” said Buris. “I know the killer's face.”

-

Back in the keep of Tasan, Annaca was consulting with Kushet about their next move. They weren't surprised when Durad and the brothers returned with news of another murder. It seemed all the more urgent to catch the murderous wizard as he had now begun killing innocent young people. Kushet became excited when she learned that Buris had seen the killer.

“Come closer,” said Kushet.

The inspector put her hand on the side of the monk's head and moved close to whisper in Buris's ear. They stayed in the position, not moving for several minutes. When Durad went to separate them, Annaca held him back. Kushet took in a few quick breaths and began to shake. This time Annaca released Durad and he pushed the monk away from Kushet's grasp. She fell to her knees. Annaca went to her.

“He is going south,” said Kushet. “To Kivik.”

-

Rays of light shone through the cracks in the wooden boards that Guther had nailed to the windows of his rundown cabin on the outskirts of Kivik. The once thriving logging town was now caught up in the conflict between warring kingdoms. It had been occupied by one warlord or another since the wars started, switching sides a dozen times. This time it was held by Esarhaddon, self-styled lord of the Slusian Plains. Guther opened his eyes at a sound from the outside.

The pain was almost unbearable. He held his fingers to his temples and bit down on the tongue. The pain got worse. There was a knock at the door. He stood up abruptly from the cot he had been lying on and went into the living room where he kept his crossbow. It was also boarded up and dark. He was careful not to step on the altar of sacrifice, a pentagram drawn in blood on the cabin floor. He picked up his weapon, knowing they would soon be coming for him.

“Come out here, Guther, you freak,” said an angry voice outside, “and get what's coming to you.”

It was farmer Cuttling. Guther wiped his brow with relief, lowering the crossbow. He opened his mouth.

“Go away, Cuttling,” said the tongue, “or I'll sicken your wife like I did your swine.”

-

There was smoke in the sky above the trees as Annaca led her squad of Rear Guard watchmen toward Kivik. Wabit was there, marching proudly by her side as Durad and Buris picked up the rear. The rumbling in the distance was getting louder. The sound of thunder boomed on what, aside from the smoke, would have been a clear sunny day. Wabit was confused as Annaca and Durad flinched every time they heard the sound. They knew something he didn't. The battle was drawing near.

When the watchmen arrived in the cluster of peasant farms outside Kivik, it was a scene of chaos. One of the cabins was on fire and the villagers were shouting and running this way and that. Durad looked for signs of a dark wizard. Kushet and the monk stayed back as the squad of the Rear Guard searched the farm houses, knowing that if they weren't aware, they might be shot by another bolt from out of nowhere. Annaca stepped forward and shouted for order. When one of the women saw Annaca's armor and badge, she ran to her.

“It's my husband!” cried Mrs. Cuttling. “Come quickly!”

As Annaca entered the cottage she was greeted by a horrible sight. The farmer was tied to the bed with leather straps, hollering and thrashing. She came closer to the head of the bed and saw the problem. Every time he opened his mouth she saw the black Ormuro worm wriggling. If there was any hope for him, the thing had to be removed.

Durad held Cuttling's head still as Annaca pried his mouth open. She slowly reached in with a knife and sliced the black worm open. The demon creature liquefied and Cuttling began to sputter and choke. Annaca stepped back, not letting the drops of steaming pus touch her skin. The farmer went into a violent spasm, then lay still.

“Can anything be done for him?” asked Wabit.

“We will know in time,” said Annaca, seeing the horrified family standing nearby. She knew that Cuttling was as good as dead.

“There still might be time for him to be of use,” said Kushet.

The royal inspector put her hands on Cuttling's comatose body and leaned close to his ear. She immediately went stiff. Then the visions came. She saw Guther pull the black cord around the watchman's neck. The scene shifted and she saw him stalking the dwarf monk. Another vision flashed across her eyes. Guther was firing his crossbow at Buris. The images shifted again and she saw him running away as the villagers of Kivik set fire to his house. Then she saw the murderer fleeing across the enemy lines into the realm of Sennacherib.

As she had succeeded, she tried to break her trance. Something was wrong. She felt her body falling, but upward, into the sky. The visions ended, replaced by the blackness of space. There were shadows moving in the darkness. Thousands of souls drifted, filling the air. The murdered dwarf Luslem was there, as was the dead watchman and the poor young man. Then the scene began to change. She was falling through the emptiness and was shortly assaulted by the stench of decay. She felt as if she had plunged into a sea of sludge. Drowning, she cried out as a hundred worms reached out for her.

The next moment Kushet found her self on the dirt floor of Cuttling's cabin. She gulped down a breath of air as she lay paralyzed on the ground, staring at the feet of her companions as they rushed to her aid. As they lifted her up, her head rolled limply against her shoulder. She could see the window of the Cuttlings' bedroom. The light was fading and the sound of thunder boomed in the distance. She tried to stand up under her own power, but her legs failed her. Wabit and Durad caught her by the arms.

“Where were you?” cried Wabit. “One second you were here, and the next you vanished. You've been gone for hours!”

The monk came before Kushet and had the watchmen lay her against the wooden log wall. Buris stared into her eyes with an intensity that frightened Kushet. She didn't want to go back to that place. Buris put his hand on Kushet's shoulder. All she could think of was that she was dying. She didn't want to close her eyes lest the monsters return. She desperately tried to speak, but her tongue wouldn't obey her. Instead a panicked breath escaped her mouth.

“You want to know where you went when you disappeared,” said Buris.

Kushet blinked, urgently.

“You were in Osoai,” said Buris, “the spirit world.”

“It cannot be,” she whispered. “It was like nightmares.”

“You were also in Ormuro,” said Buris. “Since the second apocalypse they have become one, existing together in space. The demon that the killer serves would have Ormuro become one with Earth as well.”

“Where is the killer?” demanded Annaca, taking Kushet by the arms. “Where is Guther?”

“We are too late,” murmured Kushet. “He has gone south, across the battlefield.”

Growling with frustration, Annaca stood up and left Buris to attend to Kushet, holding her head in his arms. She turned to console Cuttling's wife, her husband laying on his death bed. Annaca told her where there was the slightest hope, she should help her husband hang onto life. But should these hopes fail, she should never doubt that there would be justice.

The dwarf watchman, Durad, stood at the window, staring at the path south through the woods. Distant explosions reverberated through the trees. The fighting was close now. If Guther had gone over to Queen Sennacherib there was little hope of catching him now. The two armies were in the process of destroying each other. Durad was sworn to Esarhaddon. But as a demon hunter, he had made a greater oath, one beyond the petty causes of queens and kings.

TO BE CONTINUED

Analysis

This is our second Threetoe story in the Tales Foretold universe. (see the notes on the first story for background on the setting.) These events take place during the seventh age, Queens and Kings, following the Second Nightmare Apocalypse and the sundering of the world from the planes of magic. We'll go into details when the story is done so as not to ruin any surprises.